Category Archives: Wine Knowledge

Getting Geeky with Nik Weis St. Urbans-Hof Rieslings

Note: The wines reviewed here were samples.

Today is Riesling’s birthday!

Well, sort of.

Riesling grapes photo by Peter Ellis, Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.5

We’re celebrating one of the world’s greatest wine grapes because of an important document from March 13th, 1435. In an old cellar log from 585 years ago, the estate of Count John IV of Katzenelnbogen in Hessische Bergstrasse noted the purchase of “Riesslingen” vines.

This is widely considered to be the first written account about Riesling. While Jancis Robinson pegs the date as March 3rd, 1435 in Wine Grapes and some sources say it was actually February, the trade org Wines of Germany has declared that today is as good of a day as any to give our regards to Riesling.

I’m totally down with that.

As frequent readers of the blog know, you don’t need much to convince me to drink Riesling. Besides how incredibly food-friendly it is, I absolutely adore how it expresses terroir. From fantastic Australian Rieslings coming out of Mudgee to Napa Valley and numerous Washington State examples, these wines all exhibit their own unique personalities.

Yet they’re always quintessentially Riesling–with a tell-tale combination of pronounced aromatics and high acidity.

While the details of those aromatics change with terroir, that structure of acid is tattooed in typicity. If you don’t overthink it too much with flavors that can tempt you to wonder about Pinot gris, Gruner Veltliner and even Albarino, that acid is what should bring you home to Riesling in a blind tasting. Master of Wine Nick Jackson describes this well in his excellent book Beyond Flavor (received as a sample), noting that, like Chenin blanc, the acidity of Riesling is always present no matter where it is grown.

However, while Jackson describes Chenin’s acidity as creeping up on you like a crescendo–with Riesling, it smacks you immediately like a fireman’s pole. On your palate, all the other elements of the wine–its fruit, alcohol and sugar–wrap around Riesling’s steely acidity. Jackson’s firepole analogy is most vivid when you’re tasting an off-dry Riesling because while you can feel the sense of sweetness ebb, like a fireman sliding down, that acid holds firm and doesn’t move.

Seriously, next time you have a glass of Riesling, hold it in your mouth and picture Jackson’s vertical firepole. It will really change your blind tasting game.

And for some great benchmark bottles to try those skills out on, may I suggest the geeky good wines of Nik Weis St. Urbans-Hof in the Mosel?

The Background

St Urban pic by MR 2017. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under : CC-BY-SA-4.0

Glass window feature of St. Urban at a church in Deidesheim.

Along with his wife, Daniela, Nik Weis is a third-generation winegrower based in the middle Mosel village of Leiwen. His family’s estate, St. Urbans-Hof, was founded by his grandfather, Nicolaus Weis, after World War II. Named after the 4th-century patron saint of winegrowers who hid in vineyards to escape persecution, Weis’ family estate covers 40 hectares along the Mosel and its southern tributary, the Saar.

Many of these plots, including choice plantings in the villages of Ockfen and Wiltingen in the Saar and Piesport in the Middle Mosel, were acquired by Nik’s father, Hermann Weis.

Hermann was also the notable pioneer of Riesling in Canada. Bringing some of his family’s unique proprietary clones of Riesling to the Niagara Pennisula, Weis founded St. Urban Vineyard in the 1970s. Now known as Vineland Estates Winery, cuttings of the Weis clone Riesling from the original vineyard has been used to spread the variety all across Canada. The clones are also used in American vineyards–where they are known as Riesling FPS 01.

But the Weis family’s influence is also felt keenly in Germany as the keeper of the “Noah’s Ark of Riesling.” In his book, Riesling Rediscovered, John Winthrop Haeger notes that the Weis Reben nursery is one of the most renowned private collections of massale selected Riesling clones around. Founded by Weis’ grandfather, the source for much of the bud wood is the family’s treasure trove of old vine vineyards going up to 115 years of age.

Moreover, Master of Wine Anne Krebiehl notes in The Wines of Germany that without the efforts of Weis and his vineyard manager, Hermann Jostock, much of the genetic diversity of Mosel Riesling would have been lost.

Vineyards and winemaking

Depending on the vintage, Nik Weis can make over 20 different Rieslings ranging from a sparkling Brut to a highly-acclaimed trockenbeerenauslese. He also grows some Pinot noir, Pinot gris and Pinot blanc as well.

Old vine Riesling

Nik Weis’ wealth of old vine vineyards makes it easy for him to make this stellar bottle for less than $20.

The family estate covers six main vineyards–three in the Mosel that all hold the VDP’s highest “Grand Cru” designation of Grosse Lage. When these wines are made in a dry style, they can be labeled as Grosse Gewächs or “GG.” These vineyards include:

Laurentiuslay, planted on gray Devonian slate in the village of Leiwen with vines between 60-80 years old.
Layet, planted on gray-blue slate in the village of Mehring with vines between 40-100 years old.
Goldtröpfchen, planted on blue slate in the village of Piesport with vines between 40-100 years old.

Saar Estates. 

Along the Saar, Weis has two vineyards with Grosse Lage status and one with the “premier cru-level” Ortswein status (Wiltinger). Compared to the greater Mosel and the Ruwer, the Rieslings from the Saar tend to have higher acidity because this region is much cooler.

In The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste (another must-have for wine students), Master Sommelier Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay note that despite its more southerly location, the wider Saar Valley acts as a funnel bringing cold winds up through the valley. However, those vineyards closer to the river benefit from enough moderating influence to ripen grapes consistently for drier styles while vineyards further inland tend to be used for sweeter wines.

Bockstein, planted on gray Devonian slate in the village of Ockfen with vines between 40-60 years old.
Saarfelser, planted on red slate and alluvial soils in the village of Schoden with vines between 40-60 years old.
Wiltinger, planted on red slate in the village of Wiltigen with vines dating back to 1905.

As a member of the German FAIR’N GREEN association, Weis farms all his family’s vineyards sustainably. To help reflect the individual terroir of each plot, Weis uses native ambient yeast for all his fermentations.

The Wines

2016 Bockstein Spatlese (WS Average $27)

This was my favorite of all the wines. High-intensity nose of golden delicious apples, apricot and peach with some smokey flint.

On the palate, this wine was extremely elegant with 8% ABV that notches up to medium-minus body with the off-dry residual sugar. However, the high acidity balances the RS well and introduces some zesty citrus peel notes to go with the pronounced tree and stone fruit. Long finish lingers on the subtle smokey note.

2017 Goldtröpfchen Spatlese (WS ave $32)

Medium-plus intensity nose with riper apples and apricot fruit. It is also the spiciest on the nose with noticeable ginger that suggests some slight botrytis.

On the palate, while medium-sweet, it tasted drier than I expected from the nose. This wine spent some time in neutral (5+-year-old) oak, which added roundness. That texture consequently helps to make this 10.5% ABV Riesling feel more medium-bodied. Moderate length finish is dominated by the primary fruit, but I suspect that this wine will develop into something very intriguing.

2018 Wiltinger Alte Reben Riesling (WS ave $18)
Wiltinger Riesling

It’s crazy to think of drinking century-plus old vines for only around $18.

Sourced from the Weis family’s oldest vines that date back to 1905, this is an insane value for under $20.

High-intensity nose, this is very floral with lilies and honey blossoms. A mix of citrus lime zest and green apples provide the fruit.

On the palate, there is a slight ginger spice that emerges despite it tasting very dry and not something that I would suspect with botrytis. Still well balanced with high acidity that enhances the fruit more than the floral notes from the nose. Long finish is very citrus-driven and mouthwatering.

2018 Old Vine Estate Riesling (WS ave $17)

Another very excellent value sourced from low yielding vineyards between 30-50 years of age.

High-intensity nose with white peach and apricots as well as minerally river stones. This also has some petrol starting to emerge.

On the palate, the stone fruits continue to dominate with a little pear joining the party. Off-dry veering towards the drier side of that scale. The high acidity makes the 11% alcohol feel quite light in body. Moderate finish intensifies the petrol note–which I really dig.

2018 Mosel Dry Riesling (WS ave $15)

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very citrusy with ripe Meyer lemons. In addition, some apple and honey blossoms emerge to complement it.

On the palate, the lemons still rule the roost with both a zest and ripe fleshy depth. The ample acidity makes the wine quite dry and also introduces some minerally salinity as well. At 12% alcohol, this has decent weight for food-pairing but still very elegant. Moderate length finish stays with the lemony theme.

Bonus Geekery

On YouTube, Kerry Wines has a short 1:37 video on St. Urbans-Hof. It includes some winery views as well as gorgeous vineyard shots that surprised me. While you certainly see those classic steep Mosel slopes, there’s also much flatter terrain as well. I haven’t had the privilege yet to visit the Mosel but will certainly need to check that out.

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Education is Not Going to Save the Wine Industry

There’s a public Facebook group that I belong to called Friends Who Like Wine In The Glass. Ran by Steve and Vashti Roebuck of Wine In The Glass, it has nearly 10,000 members who span everything from regular wine lovers to industry folks and even Masters of Wine.

It’s always a good place to pop in for interesting wine conversations such as this recent thread by Larry Baker, aka Larry the Wine Guy. The thread started with Baker posting his latest video about the confusing 75% loophole for labeling American wines by grape varieties and the challenges of trying to educate consumers that their favorite Cab, Merlot or Pinot noir might actually be a red blend.

I know where Larry and other wine stewards/somms are coming from.

As someone who spent many years in the retail trenches, I can sympathize with Larry’s frustrations. The loophole is confusing. It’s also really tough dealing with people so hung up on a grape variety that they’re closed off to trying any other wine which doesn’t have that magical name on the label.

Yet, many American varietal wines in the sub $20 category can be very “red blend-y”–either because of style or a winemaker using the full stretch of that 75% loophole. I understand the desire to want to educate consumers on this loophole and use that enlightenment as a segue to get them to break out of their mono-varietal rut. However, watching Larry’s video and picturing these types of conversations happening on the sales floor made me cringe.

I know Baker is a good guy and has the best of intentions. I’m sure he’s had many great customer interactions and successes. But I’m also absolutely certain that his sincere, but exacting approach to educating consumers has turned off more than a handful as well.

(Update: Since this blog has been published, Baker has shared some more of his thoughts on sales in the comments of his original post that are worth reading for his perspective.)

I’m not writing this to pick on Larry.

He’s definitely not an isolated case.

Every single person reading this blog can think of sommeliers, wine stewards or tasting rooms associates that they’ve encountered who’ve leaned a bit too hard on the wine education front. While some of it can be driven by arrogance and snobbery, for most folks (like Larry), it’s more of an over-extension of passion. When you love wine and what you do, it’s hard not to want to share that and use your knowledge to encourage folks to try new things.

Aviation mechanic using a greasing gun image by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Kyle Steckler. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under PD US Navy

You only need to apply a little grease to ease the friction.


That passion isn’t bad. Wine education isn’t bad. But it’s imperative for anyone dealing with consumers to understand that education is not the engine that drives sales. It’s service, of which education is merely the grease that helps smooth things along.

But you know what happens when you over-grease the gears? Things run hot and break down. Customer service breaks down and the whole engine that we need to sustain the wine industry starts grinding to a halt.

Slathering on even more grease is not going to fix that.

As the US deals with declining wine sales, getting that engine back up and running is at the top of many concerns. However, anytime the industry deals with disappointing sales, there’s always a knee-jerk reaction that more education must be the answer.

Why is no one buying Sherry? It’s too confusing!

Why are Rieslings such a tough sell? People don’t understand them!

You could play this script out for most any wine topic.  It’s like there is a paradox that the answer is to both dumb things down while using education as a hammer to break through consumer ignorance. But what we should be doing is putting away both the crayons and hammers. We don’t have an education problem in the industry.

We have an empathy problem.

Frequent readers of the blog know that this is a tune that I’ve sung many times before. From my posts One Night Stands and Surprises about wineries, Wine Shops’ Biggest Mistake to my recent ponderings of When Did We Stop Treating People Like People?, I’m going to keep banging this drum.

In my career, there’s been no lesson more valuable to learn than that consumers want more listening and less lecturing. They want to be heard, seen and served–not sold to. Any winery, restaurant or wine shop that teaches “selling skills” should throw out those training manuals and start over. It won’t be selling skills that get you sales; it will be your service skills.

campfire photo by Dirk Beyer. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons GFDL and cc-by-sa-2.5

While the logs are undoubtedly vital, no air=no fire.

Those are the skills that will teach you to meet the customer where they are–at their level of knowledge and comfort. While service skills value the use of education to help smooth things along, they know that its use must be measured and not overdone.

Holding a consumer’s interest in wine is like maintaining a fire. It starts with a spark and some kindling. As it grows, you throw on logs (new wines, new knowledge) as fuel to keep it going. But you can’t toss too many on without smothering out the whole thing. The fire needs ventilation and air to sustain itself.

Too many wine professionals smother consumers with education and expertise.

I’m not saying that the industry should turn “anti-expert.” I don’t think anyone can read this blog and come away with the idea that I’m against wine education and expanding folks’ knowledge.

Education is important. Greasing the gears and throwing logs on the fire is essential.

But it’s not the engine or air which our industry needs to survive. Service is.

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In Defense of Jargon

If you’ve been floating around the Wine Twittersphere anytime the last few weeks, I’m sure you saw The Tweet.

Taxi Photo by Cristian Lorini. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Like a Chia Pet doused in Miracle-Gro, the brew-ha over wine lists, anti-intellectualism, gatekeeping and winesplaining kept sprouting into sub-threads and subtweets.

A few readers asked for my take on the ordeal but I was too busy studying for upcoming exams to give it much thought.

Besides, the many different angles of this Twitter-controversy were more than covered by Robert Joseph, Esther Mobley, and W. Blake Gray‘s excellent summaries. I’ve never been a fan of regurgitating “hot takes” that’s already been aptly taken by folks more talented than me.

So I wasn’t going to write anything unless I could move the conversation forward, or maybe in a slightly different direction.

Then a recent cab ride took me by surprise.

Asking to go to St. Pancras for my train home, my cabbie responded by offering his congrats. In a split-second of paranoia, I wondered if he somehow worked part-time on the WSET Awards Panel, but no.

Instead, he was impressed that, despite my very clear American accent, I didn’t ask to go to St. Pancreas–a daily occurrence for him. (Though, apparently, this is not a mistake made by only Americans.)

The linguistic compliment was out of the blue because, usually, I am that American who horrendously mispronounces everything.
Gravois Park sign by Paul Sableman. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Ah, GRAV-oize Park–or GRAV-oy if you’re fancy.
Definitely not how the French (or most anyone else) would say it.

Growing up in Missouri, my tongue was certainly not taught the Queen’s English. It took many years of living in other areas, such as Washington State and Paris, to learn to stop “warshing the dishes” or that places like Creve Coeur and Carondelet are not pronounced as Creeve Core and Cah-ron-duh-let.

Lord knows that I’ve baffled more than a few London cabbies asking to go to the WSET School on Beer-mond-see. But eventually, I started getting the hang of Bermondsey (Berm-zee) and those interactions got easier.

Beyond pronunciations, I also got used to standing in a queue, instead of a line, and asking where the toilets are instead of the restroom, ladies’ room or bathroom. I learned that an entrée is only a bite or two, not the main course as it is in the US.

When someone in Europe tells me something is on the second floor, I know that’s a bloody lie because it’s actually on the third floor. But if I need help with my bags, I should use the lift instead of the elevator. While seeing dates like February 1st written as 1-2-2020 will still have me backtracking to January, I’m slowly starting to adopt those habits too.

All of these things are the “jargon” of everyday life.

And while it is embarrassing, intimidating and even shame-inducing to make mistakes, those moments are fleeting. Just because I’m not familiar with Britishisms and European quirks of language, doesn’t mean that they’re wrong.

The important thing is whether or not the interaction produced results. Did I get my cab to Bermondsey? Was I directed to the bathroom? Do I have the right ticket for next Saturday’s train ride or do I need a time machine back to January 2nd?

Now, yes, a dickish cabbie, waiter or ticket attendant could amplify the shame, panning my ignorance of the local jargon and customs. But they’re probably going to be a dick anyways even if I had perfect pronunciations and total acclimation. That’s just how some people are.

It’s not the jargon or customs that are wrong. Sometimes an asshole is just an asshole.

And sometimes a crappy wine list is just a crappy wine list.

Wine List pic by Iwona Erskine-Kellie. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Bold typeface is your friend.

Going back to the Helen Rosner tweet, many people noted that simple design fixes like bolding keywords and a better layout would have helped.

Folks like Robert Joseph brought up that the thread was a good reminder that we shouldn’t forget what the purpose of a wine list is.

Ultimately, it’s to sell wine. It’s a tool to communicate.

So is jargon.

Like any tool, it can be used poorly or effectively.

On the sales floor, I actively listened for jargon from my customers. Because it clued me in on what level of familiarity they might already have with wine. This better focused my questions and gave me a good idea of how I should proceed.

In this way, jargon is like shorthand or a schema.

Someone coming in and telling me that they don’t like “bretty wines” gives me a completely different starting point than someone telling me that they don’t like wines that “smell weird.” Or they use terms like acidic and sour compared to bright, fresh or “crunchy.” (That last one provoked another interesting Twitter thread which eventually won me over to the value of “crunchy wines.”)

It’s the same thing when people tell me that they love “Burgs.” Their shorthand familiarity lets me know that I probably don’t need to insult their intelligence by making sure they know that Pinot noir and Chardonnay are the grapes of Burgundy.

However, if someone says they’re a Chard fan, I may still need to feel around more to see where they’re coming from. Here too, peppering my words with a measured amount of jargon (minerally, malo, oaky) could help in seeing how they respond.

But the onus on me, as the salesperson, is ultimately to understand and communicate with my customer. Especially if I want to actually make a sale. Just as it doesn’t help the London cabbie wanting the fare to get dickish or “play dumb” over St. Pancreas or Beer-mond-see, there’s no value in a sommelier or wine steward belittling a customer who isn’t familiar with our language and customs.

Yes, wine is complicated.

Crunchy Australian red

If you want the perfect example of a “crunchy wine” seek this out. A crazy delicious Pinot noir, Pinot Meunier and Pinot gris (yes, really!) blend from the Adelaide Hills.

Yes, it’s littered with neologisms and strange parlances that make normal folks want to flee. There’s always going to be a cottage industry trying to make wine simple and accessible to those normal people.

We should be mindful of the language we use and whether or not we’re communicating effectively. But that doesn’t mean we have to ditch the jargon completely to be able to talk to less wine-savvy folks. Likewise, Europeans don’t need to “Americanize” the pronunciations of places or change their terminology to accommodate tourists and transplants.

Instead, we should be like cabbies–trying to understand just enough so we can get our consumers to their wine destinations. Eventually, if they keep coming back, they may pick up a bit of our jargon–making future interactions easier.

And who knows? Maybe someday they’ll even enjoy a Burg on Bermondsey.

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Geek Notes — Champagne superlatives and exceptions (Part III) Why no Pinot in the Côte des Blancs?

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.”

Avize coat of arms image by infofiltrage. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

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.

Côte des Blancs (Heart of the region with the Grand Crus and all but one premier cru.)
Val du Petit Morin (The exception worth knowing about.)
Cote de Sézanne
Vitryat
Montgueux

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.

Côte des Blancs map

Map of the Côte des Blancs from the UMC website

A couple more whetstones.

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.

Butte de Saran photo by October Ends. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons underCC-BY-SA-3.0

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.

But why not more Pinot noir?

For years, plantings of Chardonnay have steadily increased. Part of this has been driven by market demand–particularly with the success of Blanc de Blancs Champagne. Another reason could be climate change with the search for more acidity and freshness.

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.

https://www.champagne-oudiette.com/en/01-the-terroir/

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.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Val du Petit Morin.

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.

Vitryat

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.

Takeaways

Montgueux photo by Superjuju10. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-3.0

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.

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Geek Notes — Champagne superlatives and exceptions (Part II) Vallée de la Marne

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.

Marne & Epernay postcard. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by G.Garitan under CC-BY-SA-4.0

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.

To really start to “get” Champagne, you have to move beyond the superlatives (and the BS of so-called “Champagne Masters”). This requires looking at legit sources but also getting your hands on detailed maps.

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 map from 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 from https://maisons-champagne.com/en/appellation/geographical-area/the-marne-valley/

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.

Benoît France’s Carte des Vin. This is an entire series covering French wine regions–including a detailed map on La Vallée de la Marne.

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.

There are six in the Vallée de la Marne.

Grande Vallée de la Marne
Vallée de la Marne Rive Droite (Right, or northern, bank of the Marne)
Vallée de la Marne Rive Gauche (Left bank of the river)
Côteaux Sud d’Épernay
Vallée de la Marne Ouest (Western valley)
Terroir de Condé

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.

Marne river at Hautvillers photo by Dguendel. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-4.0

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.

Les 7 by Laherte Frères

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.

Takeaways

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!

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Geek Notes — Champagne superlatives and exceptions (Part I) Montagne de Reims

Be sure to check out Part II on the Vallée de la Marne and Part III on the Côte des Blancs.

I want to do something a little similar to my post on the 8 Myths about the Sherry Solera System that even Wine Geeks Believe. Rather than myths per se, we’re going to tackle the “Butter Knife Knowledge” that a lot of folks have about Champagne.

19th century map Grande Montagne from Wikimedia Commons

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.

If you ask most wine geeks what are the regions of Champagne, you’ll probably get an answer like this:

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 Montagne de Reims

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:

Union des Maisons de Champagne website which notes that there are actually 17 regions in Champagne and gives planting details.

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 Mailly

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.

Perle Blanche

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.

Villers-Marmery
Trépail
Billy-le-Grand
Vaudemange

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.

Backwoods Meunier

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 Cigny Les Rose pic by CIJ Weber of INRA DIST. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

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%).

The autre cru of Cauroy-lès-Hermonville is almost entirely planted to just Meunier (99.3%), followed by Villers-Franqueux (83%) and Pouillon (70%).

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.

All of Chartogne-Taillet’s vineyard series wines highlight the unique sand and clay soils of Merfy and Massif de Saint-Thierry. In the case of Les Alliées, the topsoil is a type of black sand that is hardly ever seen in Champagne. Levi Dalton had a fascinating interview with Alexandre Chartogne during episode 209 of his I’ll Drink to That! podcast that is well worth a listen.

Vesle et Ardre and Petite Montagne

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.

All the premier crus are clustered in the Petite Montagne, located just west of the city of Reims. These include Pargny-lès-Reims (77% Pinot Meunier), Sermiers (69% PM) and Coulommes-la-Montagne (65% PM) as well as the 100% Chardonnay dominant village of Bezannes. (Note that the UMC curiously classifies Bezannes as part of the Massif de Saint-Thierry)

Jérôme Prévost’s La Closerie

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.

Right after the Chartogne interview, Levi Dalton followed it up with an IDTT episode featuring Jérôme Prévost. Again, well worth a listen.

Monts de Berru

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.

Map from By Anonymous - Ludendorff, E. (1919) My War Wemories, 1914–1918, Vol II, London: Hutchinson OCLC: 609577443., Public Domain

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.

Chardonnay.

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.

Takeaways

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.

The divorcing of Champagne from terroir was a major theme of Robert Waters’ book Bursting Bubbles and it’s truly a bubble that needs to be burst.
Chartogne-Taillet Champagne

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.

Till next time! Tchin-Tchin!

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8 Myths about the Sherry Solera System that even Wine Geeks Believe

“It is what we think we know that keeps us from learning.” — Chester I. Barnard

Screen shot of Sherry Solera system

What I love about wine is that I’m never going to master it. Not even going to come close.

Of course, I’m going to work my butt off to finish my WSET Diploma. After that, perhaps I’ll become a Master of Wine candidate and hopefully earned those MW initials. But even then, the kindling that stokes my wine passions will continue to be the vastness of everything I don’t know.

Perhaps that’s why I get a perverse thrill in realizing that I’ve had something wrong for so many years. More logs for the fire.

And boy did I have a lot of things wrong about the solera system used in Sherry!

Or, rather, I had a very simplistic understanding of it. I knew enough to be dangerous. I had a solid idea of what fractional blending was and why it was done.

Like most wine geeks, I could sketch out that familiar pyramid of barrels. I understood–or at least thought I understood–how the bottom of the solera is never wholly emptied. All the wine pulled for bottling is replaced by the layer above it. Then that layer is refilled from what’s above it until we get to the top layer with the new harvest’s wines.

But that knowledge is about as dangerous as a butter knife.

Clearly, I needed a few whetstones. I found them in my Diploma textbook as well as Julian Jeffs’ Sherry and Ruben Luyten’s phenomenal website Sherry Notes.

Mythbusting #1 – There are no pyramids of barrels.

Sherry barrels photo by Falkue. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Also, barrels are heavy and it’s not practical to have more than 3-4 layers stacked on top of each other.

Take that classic graphic you see everywhere and chuck it out the window. The reality is that each layer (a criadera or scale), is almost always grouped together and kept separate from the other layers. Sometimes they’re even kept in different bodegas. This is done for several reasons.

One consideration is insurance against a catastrophe. Something like a fire in one part of the barrel room or a bodega could take out a whole solera system. Yes, losing an entire criadera itself would be terrible (especially if it is the oldest solera layer). However, that’s nowhere near as devastating as losing all the scales at once.

But there’s also an overlooked winemaking reason as well.

Wines mature differently in different areas. This is true on a macro scale of one bodega in Sanlúcar de Barrameda and another in El Puerto de Santa María–as well as two bodegas across the street in Jerez. But it’s also exhibited on a micro-level between two corners of the same barrel room.

It can even be seen in the difference within a stack of 4 layers of barrels. The bottom two layers, closest to the floor, are always going to be cooler as heat rises. This means that the upper layers will mature faster and experience more evaporation–increasing the concentration of alcohol, body and flavor.

If you’re knowledgeable about whiskey, that’s going to sound awfully familiar. As in Sherry, whiskey producers know that barrels in various parts of the rack house or dunnage warehouse mature differently.

This variance adds complexity and more color to a master blender’s palette. An experienced capataz (cellarmaster) is always keenly aware of the unique terroir in their bodegas. They will spread out the various scales of their soleras to different areas with the right conditions they’re looking for.

Mythbusting #2 – The solera layer isn’t always on the floor either.

The last or oldest scale of a solera is called, somewhat confusingly, the solera layer. This comes from the Spanish suelo and Latin solum which means “floor”. So, of course, all those pyramid schematics feature this layer at the bottom.

But more often you’re going to find younger criadera of Finos and Manzanilla on the actual bottom floor layer. Here they can take advantage of the cooler temperatures and slower maturation. Stacked on top of them might be criadera from a completely different solera of oxidatively aged Amontillado or Oloroso. It makes more sense to put these barrels here since they will benefit from the warmth.

Mythbusting #3 – They’re not partially emptying one barrel into another barrel on the next level.

Now while bodegas want complexity, one overarching theme to remember about a solera is that its primary purpose is to ensure consistency. As we noted above, barrels mature differently. So even two barrels right next to each other could develop unique personalities. That variance isn’t a bad thing, but producers need to control it somehow.

For example, if you’re pulling from Barrel A in criadera 4 to refill Barrel B in criadera 3, then any and all barrel variation exhibited by Barrel A will only be shared with just Barrel B. This is going to compound, rather than smooth out, barrel variations. When you’re aiming for consistency, that’s not good. This is why the rocío (replenishing wine) is hardly ever transferred just straight barrel-to-barrel.

Instead, the wine removed from Barrel A is going to be divided up between multiple barrels in criadera 3 (B, C, D, E, F, etc.).  The video below (1:29-2:20) shows this old-school method. The more modern, mechanized technique is to remove all the saca (wine being pulled) from the various barrels in one criadera and mix them in a tank. Then this blended rocío is evenly portioned out to refill all the barrels of the older criadera.

Mythbusting #4 – It’s not like racking with just pouring the new wine back into the barrel.

Many wine geeks are familiar with what racking is. It’s an easy image to picture taking place in the solera. But you have to remember that with Sherry–particularly biologically aged Finos and Manzanilla–there’s a hitch. You don’t want to disturb the flor.

This is especially vital since another essential purpose of a solera is to sustain a healthy flor by frequently reintroducing fresh wine and nutrients for the yeast.

Therefore you need specialized tools for both the saca and rocío. These tools, the sifon and rociador, dive underneath the layer of flor–but not too deep to disturb the lees at the bottom of the barrel. I mentioned this Jamie Goode video in my post on the Top 5 YouTube Videos on Sherry Wine, but it’s worth revisiting to see these tools in action.

Mythbusting #5 – The new harvest doesn’t go straight into a solera.

It seems so simple, right? You finish fermentation of the new year’s wine, put it into barrel and boom. You’ve got the new baby wine layer for the solera. Ready to go.

Not quite.

The new harvest, añadas or vintage wine, needs to first go through a waiting period. During this time the wine is monitored to see what style it lends itself too. Most wine geeks are aware of an initial first classification where barrels are chalked up as “palma/palo” for lighter styles designated for biological aging or “raya/gordura” for more robust wines destined for oxidative styles. It is at this stage where fortification happens to either encourage flor (15-15.5% ABV) or prevent it from developing (17%).

But the wines aren’t shuttled off to join a Fino or Oloroso solera just yet. Instead, the barrels continue to be observed as part of the sobretablas. This can last anywhere from 9 months to 2 or 3 years. Sometimes even longer. With Finos and Manzanillas, the development and health of the flor are monitored with some barrels getting diverted towards more oxidative styles like Amontillado. For potential Oloroso and Palo Cortado, the body and texture are evaluated. It is this second classification that ultimately determines which solera the wine will be best suited for.

Mythbusting #6 – Likewise, the new harvest isn’t always what goes into the youngest criadera.

Graphic from Denkhenk. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0.

From the Dutch Wikipedia.

Many established soleras, particularly those producing VOS/VORS wines, aren’t replenished by the new year’s wines. Instead, the source for their “new blood” is the already aged products from other soleras.

The reasons for this are quality driven but also quite practical. It requires an immense amount of time to start a solera from scratch with new vintage wines. For very old Sherries, it makes more sense to start and sustain them with wine that has already been significantly aged.

This is also the case with many Amontillados. Producers often will take wine from an established Fino or Manzanilla solera to replenish an Amontillado system. Many Palo Cortados (such as Valdespino’s Viejo C.P.) are made by selecting high-quality barrels from Fino and Amontillado soleras and then feeding them into the Palo Cortado solera. Rarely is a Palo Cortado solera replenished by a new vintage’s wine.

Before busting this myth, I use to wonder why things like a VORS (30+ year aged Sherry) solera didn’t have 30+ scales of barrels. This was driven by my mental-math quandary with the next myth.

Mythbusting #7 – Bottling doesn’t happen once a year.

The input-output of a solera didn’t always add up for me.  It especially seemed complicated by the fact that Sherry producers couldn’t legally drain more than 30% of a barrel for bottling. Factoring loses from evaporation helped the mental math a little. In large soleras, 1 to 2 barrels worth of wine could be lost between criadera levels from the angel’s share. But I always knew that there were some puzzle pieces I was missing.

Learning that soleras are dynamic with barrels moving between different soleras filled in a few of those pieces. But I had to divorce my thinking from the traditional winemaking calendar of bottling a particular wine once a year. Unlike many wines, Sherry is bottled on-demand to meet the needs of the market.

In the case of Finos and Manzanillas, there could be 2-4 or even 6+ bottlings a year.
Flor in a barrel

To maintain a healthy amount of flor, Fino and Manzanilla soleras need regular replenishment from more frequent bottlings.

This ensures that the wine that hits the market is fresh. However, it also helps sustain the vital flor with frequent replenishment of new wine being brought in from the sobretabla. Keep in mind, those producers don’t have to bottle the maximum amount they’re legally able to pull. The saca may only be 10-20% of each barrel or even 5%. Again, depending on the demand of the market.

There doesn’t even have to be any bottling in a given year. This is especially pertinent if there aren’t the sales to warrant putting more bottles out in the market. The wine will just sit there chilling in the solera until there is a need to bottle more. This flexibility to weather dips and booms in demand has been critical in Sherry’s survival.

However, the final piece to my mental math puzzle was the realization that I had to throw the math away. Because…

Mythbusting #8 – The oldest solera layer isn’t always the scale that a Sherry is bottled from.

This was my “son of a bitch” light bulb moment while studying. It was at this point when I realized how spectacularly wrong I was with my thinking about how soleras work. Again, I have to blame those classic pyramid illustrations. They evoke the image of Sherry wine flowing through the criaderas of a solera like a river. The wine enters in as headwaters only to eventually exit into the ocean–bottled and sent out into the world.

But the truth is, the layers of criadera are like ports along the river. Here the wine can be diverted away as irrigation channels to meet price points and stylistic demands.

Legally, a Sherry only has to be at least two years old to be bottled and sold as Sherry. Many times, it’s already reached this minimum at the sobretabla phase. So at any point, with any layer of the solera, a producer can selectively pull wine out to blend and bottle. It doesn’t have to be from that oldest solera layer at all.

Flight of Sherry photo by Michal Osmenda . Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

There is great flexibility in being able to blend and pull from multiple scales of a solera. This allows bodegas to produce Sherry in a variety of styles to meet various price points.

For example, let’s say a producer is making a fairly inexpensive and light Sherry.

The bulk of that wine is likely going to come from young criaderas. It wouldn’t make stylistic or economical sense to pull it from the oldest layer. Though, the producer may pull a little bit from one of the older scales to add complexity. Likewise, even a premium Sherry bottled from older criadera levels may need some wine from younger scales for added freshness.

Of course, there are many Sherries that are bottled exclusively from that oldest solera level. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In many respects, all the various criadera layers are essentially like “reserve wines” in Champagne. Bodegas can selectively pull and blend between them to make multiple Sherries of all different price points and styles.

So, yeah, those pyramid drawings of Sherry that you see everywhere are pretty wrong.

However, they are the most straightforward way of trying to boil down a very complex and dynamic system. It’s not that they’re entirely misleading. They’re just very incomplete.

Realizing how lacking those illustrations are isn’t a reason to get annoyed. Instead, it should be a reason to appreciate Sherry more and get excited.

After all, there’s so much more out there to learn and discover.

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Geek Notes: Top 5 YouTube Videos on Sherry Wine

Want more Sherry geeking? Check out my post on the 8 Myths about the Sherry Solera System that even Wine Geeks Believe.

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.

Pouring sherry photo by Jesus Solana. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

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.

Chamomile photo By Karelj - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20041986

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.

My criteria:

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.

Part 2 Sherry Winecast https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jpcJ1INaknY

Screenshot from Part 2 of the Unknown Winecaster’s series on Sherry (July 20th, 2018)

Part 1 (12:18) – An Intro, the grapes & region
Part 2 (11:45) – The production process
Part 3 (12:47) – The different styles
Part IV (8:32) – Special age designations and food pairings

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.

A Tip:

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.

For me, it was being introduced to the albedo effect

This triggered a light bulb moment in how the reflectiveness of the white Albariza soils helps with water retention.

Albariza soil photo by El Pantera. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

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?

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Introducing the Mystery Grape Game

Update: Starting in Feb 2020, I’ve made some changes to the game to better work with my schedule. They are noted in italics in the “Here’s How It Goes” and “Timing” sections below.

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.

IG Mystery Grape clue James Busby

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.

I’ll still be doing regular Geek Notes and other general wine features on the blog. But I’ve started to focus a lot of my geekiness over on the SpitBucket Instagram account where I’ve launched a Mystery Grape game using the IG story feature.

So what is it?

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.

IG Mystery grape straw bears

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, Wednesday and 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.
IG Mystery grape clue apple

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.

Most of these clues will come from my own tasting notes of these grape varieties, but I will sometimes reference Neel Burton’s The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting, Rajat Parr’s The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste and the Oxford Companion to Wine.

The last clue (#6) of the first batch is usually a context clue.
IG mystery grape honey wax 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).

Almost all these context clues are going to come from Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes. For Italian wines, I also like using Ian d’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy. Both books are must haves for wine students.

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.

And these clues will be easier–including more WSET 3 knowledge with at least clue 10 going down to WSET 2/Certified Sommelier/Certified Specialist of Wine level.

IG Mystery Grape Israeli wine.

Admittedly this was a little hard for a Clue 9, but it was something that googling would give the answer away to.

At the launch of the second batch of clues, I will do a separate Instagram post that will also go out on the SpitBucket Twitter account highlighting a particular clue and letting folks know if someone has already guessed correctly.

Timing

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 Noon and 1pm CET. That will be 6-7 am New York, 3-4 am Seattle and 10-11 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

IG Mystery Grape saffron

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.

Intrigued?

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.

Happy Geeking!

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The Sleeping Giant of Italian Wine

A couple of days ago, Harper’s UK posted an article about the dominance of Old World wine in the Chinese on-trade sector (restaurants, bars, etc.). While New World regions like Australia are making an active play, France still rules the roost with a 36.7% market share.

Mauro Sebaste Roero Arneis

But the French have been focusing on China for a few decades now–starting not long after France and China formally established diplomatic relations in 1974. Interest was strongly led by Bordeaux estates, which still make up a sizable chunk of the French-Chinese market today.

However, the most eye-raising stat from Harper’s report was the very solid share of Italian wines at 17.9%. Though, as the article noted, Italian wines still only account for 6.3% of total Chinese imports–which includes grocery and retail sales.

But considering that you don’t hear much about marketing Italian wines in China, there is plenty of room for optimism if I’m an Italian wine producer.

And it’s not just China that is seeing growth in Italian wine sales.

Italian wine sales in the US have been steadily growing as well–and, no, it’s not your grandma’s straw basket Chianti or cheap Pinot grigio that’s fueling that growth.

Luigi Pira's Dolcetto d'Alba

Luigi Pira’s Dolcetto d’Alba is a screaming good deal in the $12-16 range retail and is rarely seen above $35-40 at restaurants.

Instead, backed by a huge marketing push, Americans are discovering the vast diversity of Italian wines. With its bounty of unique and exciting grape varieties, as well as thousands of small producers, Italian wines are particularly enticing to Millennials who desperately seek something different from the same ole, same ole.

Even better, because Italian wines are still lingering in the straw basket shadow of fiascos past, many of these wines are crazily underpriced. Especially in the $10-20 range, you can often find bottles that way overdeliver on the price. Simply put, Italian wines are nailing the Millennial Math.

In the race to capture the hearts of the elusive Millennial market, Italian wine producers have a great head start. Wineries across the globe are well advised to pay attention to a sleeping giant that is poised to take more of their market share.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Go check out your local wine shop and meander over to the Italian section.  Look for examples of these grapes below and see for yourself what the hype is all about.

Seven exciting Italian wine grapes to try.

Below are varieties that most good wine shops should carry at least one, if not multiple, examples of. All of the pictured and referenced wines are ones that I’ve personally found in the United States, though a few of them I did first try on producer visits to Italy. But, while they were all excellent, you don’t need to look for these particular producers. It’s more about just trying the grape.

BTW, if you want to geek out more about Italian grapes, I very highly recommend getting Ian d’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy as well as Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch’s Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy. That last recommendation currently has many used paperback options available on Amazon for less than $10 bucks. Great buy for wine students.

Aleatico

Fubbiano Aleatico

This Aleatico with dark chocolate covered raspberries was a heavenly pairing.

One of the oldest grapes in Italy, Aleatico can be found as far north as Elba and Tuscany and as far south as Sicily and Puglia. DNA evidence has shown that it has some parent-offspring relationship with Moscato bianco, but it is not yet known which grape is the parent and which is the child. Still, a good comparison of Aleatico is to think of a black Muscat with more racy acidity and spicy aromas of cinnamon.

Made in the passito style (with dried grape), this Fattoria di Fubbiano Aleatico reminded me of a richer and spicer ruby port. This wine was beautifully balanced with sweetness and deep dark fruit but still lively and fresh tasting. For around $25-30 for a 500ml bottle, it’s an excellent choice for that bedeviling pairing of red wine and chocolate.

A great choice for: Wine drinkers who want balance and complexity in their sweet dessert wines.

One of the biggest things that separate wine geeks from wine snobs is that geeks can appreciate good sweet wines. After dinner, many sweet wines are perfect as dessert themselves or as pairing partners. If you have a snob friend who always turns their nose up at sweet wine or who thinks Port is too alcoholic, challenge them with a great bottle of Aleatico.

Arneis

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

The same fog conditions that are so valuable for maintaining freshness in Nebbiolo can help Arneis retain its acidity in the right locations.

In the 1980s, Arneis was one of Italy’s most popular white wines, but this Piemontese grape eventually took a back seat to the global thirst for Italian Pinot grigio (and later Moscato). Still, quality minded producers like Mauro Sebaste never lost faith in this fresh and aromatically floral grape.

In the Piemontese dialect, the name “Arneis” is derived from the word for “rascally individuals,” and the grape can be a bit of a rascal in the vineyard. Producers have to pay attention to the vine throughout the growing season and make sure that it is planted in the right locations to thrive. The sandy, chalky soils of the Roero on the left bank of the Tanaro has shown itself to be particularly well-suited for Arneis.

Before DOC/G laws were tightened, the low acid Arneis was often blended into the higher acid Barbera and even Nebbiolo of Barolo to help soften those wines and add aromatic lift. It was a practice not that dissimilar to the co-fermenting of Viognier with Syrah in Cote Rotie. The best examples of varietal Arneis attest to the wisdom of that old practice with gorgeous white floral notes, subtle herbalness and creamy mouthfeel.

A great choice for: Fans of white Rhones like Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne.

But also red Rhone drinkers for that matter too. The combination of lovely floral notes with a mouth-filling body makes this another great white wine option for red wine drinkers.

Barbera

Mauro Veglio Barbera d'Alba

Pro tip: Producers who make really good Barolo and Barbaresco (like Mauro Veglio) will usually make a very kickass Barbera.
If you’re at a restaurant and don’t want to pay a fortune, compare the Barbera and Barolo/Barbaresco sections for producers.
I can guarantee that the Barbera will be a great buy.

One of the biggest surprises for me in visiting Piedmont was how much Barbera dominates the wine lists of local Piemontese restaurants. While Barolo and Barbaresco are the region’s pride and joy, Barbera is what they drink most regularly. And it makes sense because the grape produces immensely delicious wines that are very approachable young.

It’s also no shocker that Barbera is one of top 5 most planted grapes in Italy.  What is a little more surprising is that it is one of the 15 most widely planted red grapes in the world.

Unoaked examples are going to show lively acidity and be redolent of red fruits. Meanwhile, some oak will introduce more vibrant chocolate notes. In general, the wines from Barbara d’Alba tend to be more full-bodied with more prominent tannins.  While I find those from Barbara d’Asti to be more floral and velvety.

A great choice for: Folks getting knee deep and geeky into the Cru Beaujolais trend.

There are rocking bottles coming out of Beaujolais, but people are catching on and the prices are starting to rise. I actually find Barbera to be a little more consistent than Gamay. Plus, with it still being under the radar, amazing bottles can be easily found for less than $20.

Dolcetto

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as user:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The “red stemmed” version of the Dolcetto has even made its way to the US. This cluster pic was taken at a vineyard in the Puget Sound AVA of Washington in mid-October just before harvest.

The “little sweet one” that is never sweet and rarely a little, light bodied wine. The name likely came from Dolcetto’s favoring as a table grape. I haven’t had the privilege of trying Dolcetto grapes off the vine. But I’ve heard from producers that they are quite a treat. Apparently, you can taste the bright red berry and plum flavors of Dolcetto as well as a subtle saline note that the best Piemontese examples exhibit.

While we don’t talk about clones as much for Dolcetto as we do for Sangiovese or Pinot noir, Dolcetto has quite a bit of clonal variation. In the vineyard, these can be readily apparent by looking at the cluster stalk. Most have a greenish stem, but one particular clone (or biotype as Ian d’Agata prefers) known as Dolcetto dal Peduncolo Rosso has a fiery red colored stem. It is a specialty of the Tassarolo area near Alessandria. However, it can be found in many vineyards in the Dolcetto d’Alba zone as well.

The Dolcetto d’Alba area tends to produce the biggest, most full-bodied Dolcettos with a mix of red and dark fruit. While not as tannic as the Nebbiolo of great Barolo and Barbaresco, these wines will have some heft. In the Dolcetto di Dogliani area, the wines tend to exhibit more floral notes. This is also the area where I pick up that saline minerality the most.

A great choice for: Wine drinkers wanting something between a Pinot noir and a Merlot.

While, undoubtedly, more tannic and bigger bodied, I get a lot of Pinot quality in some Dolcetto. Particularly with the floral and minerally nature of Dolcetto di Dogliani. However, those from the Dolcetto d’Alba area can have more opulent dark fruit. With oak influence, even some chocolate notes can come out. You wouldn’t ever confuse a Dolcetto for a plush, hedonistic Napa Merlot. However, the lively acidity and freshness can hit a lot of pleasure spots for Washington Merlot fans.

Falanghina

Donnachaira Falanghina

A great white wine option in the $14-16 range for pairing with medium to heavy body food dishes.

This is another ancient Italian wine grape with likely Roman origins. However, the association of Falanghina with the famous Roman wine Falernian is probably misplaced.

Part of this is because there are so many different types of Falanghinas out there. Ampelographers are not yet sure how many are different clones/biotypes or if they’re distinct grape varieties. For the most part, what you’ll see in the US is Falanghina from the Benevento IGP in Campania.

In the rich clay and volcanic tufa soils of Campania, Falanghina produces heady, full-bodied wines with tree fruits and floral notes. Some examples can also have a subtle leafy greenness. It’s not quite New Zealand Sauvignon blanc green but more reminiscent of an excellent white Bordeaux.

A great choice for: White Bordeaux fans!

But as with the Arneis above, I can also see Falanghina capturing the attention of white Rhone drinkers as well. It definitely has the body and structure to appeal to many wine lovers. Likewise, drinkers of unoaked or lightly oaked (but not buttery) Chards can find this wine to be a charming change of pace as well. It will pair with many of the same food dishes.

Friulano

Schioppettino Friulano

I had to hunt for online retailers that offered this Schioppettino Friulano but, even paying a premium, this was still an absolute steal of a wine for under $25.

When I had my big cellar-clean out parties before moving to France, this Schioppettino Friulano rocked my world. I was pretty much dragging this bottle to everyone at the tasting and telling them that they had to try this wine. If you ever wanted a textbook example of minerality, this was it.

Formerly known as Tocai Friulano, legend has it that Italians shared this grapevine with the 13th century Hungarian King Bela IV where it was once used for that country’s famous Tokay wines. Ampelographers and wine historians now believe that there is little truth to those tales. But the racy acidity, green apples, nutty almonds notes and flinty minerality of Friulano is not that far off from a dry Hungarian Furmint.

A great choice for: Fans of exciting, minerally whites.

Dry Riesling, Chablis, Sancerre. You’re probably not going to confuse Friulano with any of those. However, there is a kinship in the electric way that all these wines dance on your tongue. There’s a nerviness about them that is just absolutely intoxicating once you find a great example.

Another tell-tale distinction between wine geeks and wine snobs is the cyclic journey that geeks take in appreciation of great whites. Both snobs and geeks often start out drinking white wines. Maybe sweet Rieslings before moving on to the Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Pinot grigios of the world. Then comes the dabbling in red wines. Here most snobs get stuck with the occasional allowance for the “appetizer” white wines of Great Burgundies and what not. All before you get down to the seriousness of red wines, of course.

But wine geeks eventually circle back to the wonderful world of whites. They can appreciate the seriousness and winemaking skill that making great white wines entails. Without a doubt, Friulano is a wine geek’s wine.

Dry Lambrusco

Dry Lambrusco

While it’s great with my wife’s homemade Margherita pizza, dry Lambrusco would elevate even Totino’s Party Pizza.

Yes, dry Lambrusco. We’re not talking about the Riunite or Cella Lambruscos that your Aunt has hidden under the cupboard. If you want the surest sign that you’re shopping in a good wine shop, it will most definitely be the presence of dry or Secco Lambrusco. Often with a slight effervescence, this is one of the most perfect pizza wines that you can find.

June’s #ItalianFWT Twitter chat–which I recently profiled– focused on Lambrusco with a lot of great write-ups and reviews of different wines (almost all of which can be found in the US). I highly recommend checking out the #ItalianFWT hashtag which featured links to many great blog posts. A few of my favs were:

The Wine Predator’s Bugno Martino’s Organic Lambrusco Defy Expectations.

The Asian Test Kitchen’s TOP 5 FAST FOODS PAIRINGS WITH LAMBRUSCO.

Linda Whipple’s SIPPING LAMBRUSCO IN STRAWBERRY SEASON

A great choice for: Pizza lovers.

While the blogs listed above gave other great pairing ideas, my heart still goes to pairing dry Lambrusco with pizza. The tang and sweetness of the tomato sauce pairs gorgeously with the bite and rambunctious berry fruitiness of Lambrusco. Plus the saltiness of the cheese and toppings is the perfect foil for the tannins and subtle earthiness.

This really is one of those magical pairings that everyone should try. You can see how vividly the wine and food change when you have them separate compared to having them together.

Want more? Check out these 60 Second Reviews of a few more Italian wine favorites

60 Second Wine Review — Lanzavecchia Essentia . A crazy delicious Nebbiolo, Barbera and Merlot blend that I’m still smarting over not buying more bottles of.

60 Second Wine Review — 2008 Ferrari Perlé. A $30-35 traditional method sparkler that blows most mass-produced negociant Champagnes in the $40-50 range out of the water.

60 Second Wine Review — Armani Colle Ara Pinot Grigio. Think all Italian Pinot grigios are cheap and watery? Think again.

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