On Twitter, Jason Haas of Tablas Creek shared some of the struggles that wineries have battling consumers’ expectations for cheap or free shipping on wine deliveries.
A short thread on customer expectations and wine shipping. 12 years ago, we surveyed wine club members who had canceled in recent years to learn more about why. One response we got repeatedly was that people expected free or very cheap shipping. https://t.co/JwhKebLKdb 1/
He very justifiably blames Amazon for creating this quagmire. It’s a sentiment that I’m sure most e-commerce businesses would agree with. One recent study from the National Retail Federation found that 75% of respondents in the US expected free shipping–including 88% of Boomers.
And as retailers like Wine.com and Total Wine & More roll out their own free shipping programs, it won’t be only Amazon shaping wine consumers’ expectations.
As I noted in my retweet of Haas’ thread, this has me conflicted. I know that shipping wine is expensive and complicated. There are so many things that wineries and retailers have to consider which businesses shipping books and bed spreads don’t deal with.
But when I take off my “wine biz” glasses and look at how I act as a consumer, I know that I’ve been Amazon’d.
On second thought….maybe not.
I can’t count how many times I’ve been on a winery’s website picking out items only to go “Whoa” at checkout because of delivery. It’s not that I expect free delivery, but when I see a fee of more than $25-35 (roughly $2-3 a bottle) for a case, I start asking myself, do I really want this wine?
That should make wineries nervous. Because, usually, the answer is going to be “No. I don’t need this wine.”
Up until that point, I was fully onboard spending money and just rolling along with the sale. However, as soon as I was given a reason to pause and wonder if the wines are really worth it, the train derailed.
It’s not because I felt angry or offended that a winery was charging delivery fees–again, I completely understand the business behind it. But what wineries need to understand themselves, is that consumers have so many other choices–not just of different wines and wineries but also of other beverages.
There’s never a situation where we absolutely have to buy your wines. Our lives are not going to be incomplete and joyless without it. In that sense, buying wine (especially online) is always going to be a bit of an impulse purchase. A fleeting fancy carried by a moment of intrigue.
The last thing a winery wants to do is kill that momentum.
Now if I feel this way as a consumer who is reasonably knowledgeable and sympathetic about the tough market wineries face, think about the average consumer who doesn’t know the business. It becomes easy to see why they would expect free delivery or fees far less than the $25-35 that someone like me is comfortable with.
Likewise, it shouldn’t be a shock when e-commerce studies show that upwards of 50% of online baskets are abandoned on the delivery page. While I sincerely hope that cart abandonment numbers are better for wineries, I’m sure even a 30% rate of abandonment cuts deeply into a winery’s sales.
So how much should wineries subsidize shipping?
I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that question. Every winery is going to have its own numbers to crunch. But there’s always going to be a delta between what it costs to ship and how much consumers are willing to pay–and that gap is only going to get larger.
Therefore, I would encourage wineries to add a few more numbers to crunch.
1.) How much are you spending on new customer acquisitions?
So many of my abandoned carts were at wineries that I never tried before. I would come across an article or hear a recommendation that piqued my interest. I’d go check out the website, find other wines that intrigued me and start nibbling the hook. But the difference between reeling in a new customer or having the line break often comes down to how easy it is to get your wines. It doesn’t matter how good the wine is if crappy websites, poor user experience and, yes, delivery fees means that the consumer never tries it. It’s not only a lost sale but also a lost relationship.
Remember, there is always other wine and wineries out there casting their lines. Someone else is going to reel in that customer if you don’t.
2.) How much do you spend to break into a new market?
Many DtC sales are from consumers who can’t find your wine locally. If they’re not going to buy from you directly because of delivery fees, then how much do you need to invest in establishing a presence in their market? This is a big question for West Coast wineries who are looking at the East Coast–which is often the most expensive region to ship to.
Of course, thanks to the asinine three-tier system, even shipping into new markets usually requires licensing, fees and significant investment on top of shipping costs. More numbers to crunch.
3.) But even for the markets that you’re already in, what is the margin difference between a consumer buying 1-2 bottles of your wine retail versus 6-12 online?
Oh I’m definitely going to spend way more than I intended here.
And I fully admit that I’m one of those suckers. If a website gives me a spending target to get free shipping, I’m usually going to exceed it. Even though I know it’s a placebo and I’m still indirectly paying for shipping, it feels easier to justify the money. Instead of paying an “extra fee”, I’m getting an extra product, so I’m happy.
With wine, a flat rate delivery-fee always encourages me to buy more because I figure if I’m in for a penny, I’m in for a pound. And, hey, if someone else is going to carry the heavy wine bottles to my door, then I might as well buy two cases instead of one!
But if I’m at a wine shop, I’m buying far less. Plus, I’m filling up my basket with other wineries’ wines as well–giving you even less of my wallet.
So can wineries win the delivery cost battle?
In short, no. Consumer expectations for free and cheap delivery are only going to continue to grow stronger. Yes, it’s easy to blame Amazon. But, ultimately, it’s always going to be consumers writing the rules with their wallets.
And while your tactics might need to change, the battle for consumers’ wallets can certainly still be won.
We’ve covered the exceptions of the Montagne de Reims and Vallée de la Marne in parts I and II of this series. Now we turn our focus to the Côte des Blancs, the “hill of whites.”
Coat of Arms of the Grand Cru village of Avize. Note the color of the grapes.
It’s almost an understatement to say that this region is universally known for world-class Chardonnay. Of all the superlatives in Champagne, this is one you can absolutely take to the bank.
So pretty short article today, eh?
Well, not quite.
I’ve still got a few geeky tricks up my sleeve–including one notable exception. But more importantly, we’re going to look at the why behind the superlative.
Why Chardonnay? And why does no one talk about planting Pinot noir here? After all, it’s also a highly prized noble variety. So why is the entire Côte des Blancs region planted to 85% Chardonnay with only 7% Pinot noir?
To answer that, we need to cut deep as we look at the sub-regions of the Côte des Blancs.
That last one, Montgueux, is a bit of a wild card. I can see why it is officially grouped with the Côte des Blancs. But it’s in the Aube department, just west of Troyes. In comparison to the other subregions, Montgueux is 60 km away from Sézanne and over 100km away from Avize. So I’m going to put this one aside till Part IV.
In Part I & II, I gave a few recommendations of helpful wine books and study tools. Today, I’ll add two more that I’ll be relying heavily on for this article.
Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay’s The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste – This is the perfect companion to Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s World Atlas of Wine. While the latter goes into geeky encyclopedic detail, The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste ties those details back to how they directly influence what ends up in your glass. Great book for blind tasting exams.
James E. Wilson’s Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wines – Not going to lie. This is not a bedtime read. Well, it is if you want a melatonin boost. While chockful of tremendous insight, this is a very dense and technical book. You want to treat this more as an encyclopedia–looking up a particular region–rather than something you go cover to cover with. But if you want to sharpen your understanding of French wine regions, it’s worth a spot on your bookcase. (Especially with used copies on Amazon available for less than $10)
When you think of the Côte des Blancs, think about the Côte d’Or.
Vineyards in the northern Grand Cru of Chouilly with the Butte de Saran in the background.
The Côte des Blancs is essentially Champagne’s extension of the Brie plateau (yes, like the cheese). Over time it has eroded and brought the deep chalky bedrock to the surface. Like the Côte d’Or, both the heart of the Côte des Blancs and Cote de Sézanne have east-facing slopes capped by forests with a fertile plain at the bottom.
This prime exposure is the first to receive warmth from the early morning sun. During the cold spring nights of flowering (after bud break), Chardonnay is most vulnerable as the earliest bloomer. It needs to get to that warmth quickly for successful pollination.
It’s a similar reason why growers in the Côte des Blancs avoid planting near the very top of the slope where there is more clay. The soils here are cooler and don’t heat up as quickly. Plus, being so close to the misty forest cap encourages wetter conditions that promote botrytis. As we covered in Part II, both Chardonnay and Pinot noir are quite sensitive to this ignoble rot.
Echoing back to Burgundy, we see that the most prized plantings of Chardonnay (notably the Grand Cru villages) in the Côte des Blancs are midslope. In the sparse areas where we do find Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier, it’s usually the flatter, fertile plains that have deeper topsoils.
The Tiny Exceptions.
This is the case with the premier cru village of Vertus. While still 90% Chardonnay, the southern end of the village sees more clay and deeper topsoils as the slope flattens and turns westward. This encourages a little red grape planting with fruit from the village going to houses like Duval-Leroy, Larmandier-Bernier, Delamotte, Louis Roederer, Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot.
The village of Grauves is also an interesting case. In his book, Champagne, Peter Liem argues that this premier cru should actually be part of the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay. Looking at a good wine map, you can easily see why. It’s on the other side of the forest cap from the rest of the Côte des Blancs villages–opposite Cramant and Avize. Here most all the vineyards face westward. While Chardonnay still dominates (92%), we see a tiny amount of Meunier (7%) and Pinot noir (1%) creep in.
Likewise, in Cuis–where vineyards make an almost 180 arch from Cramant and Chouilly to Grauves–we see a range of exposures that adds some variety to the plantings (4% red grapes). The home village of Pierre Gimonnet, Cuis is still thoroughly Chardonnay country as a fruit source for Billecart-Salmon, Bollinger and Moët & Chandon.
This video (3:08) from Champagne Pierre Domi in Grauves has several great aerial drone shots of the area.
So you could say, why bother planting Pinot noir when you have such great Chardonnay terroir?
But there are other viticultural reasons for the Côte des Blancs to flavor Chardonnay over Pinot noir. For one, despite the topographical similarities to the Côte d’Or (and Côte de Nuits), the soil is much chalkier in the Côte des Blancs. While Pinot noir likes chalk, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
Chalk has many benefits, but it also has a significant negative.
It’s high calcium content and alkaline nature encourages reactions in the soil that make vital nutrients like iron and magnesium scarce. Both are needed for chlorophyll production and photosynthesis. A lack of these nutrients can lead to chlorosis–of which Pinot noir is particularly susceptible.
The effects of chlorosis can be seen in the yellowing of leaves due to lack of chlorophyll. Considering that all the sugars that go into ripening grapes come from the energy production of photosynthesis, this isn’t great for a wine region that often teeters on the edge of ripeness–especially with Pinot noir.
There is also more lignitic clay down in the Val du Petit Morin and Marne Valley. This picture is from the website of Champagne Oudiette who has vineyards in both areas.
As James Wilson notes in Terroir, the “magical ingredient” to help balance these soils is lignite. In Champagne, lignitic clays are known as cendres noires or “black ashes.” Essentially compressed peat mixed with clay, the cendres noires helps hold these critical nutrients in the soil.
The Montagne de Reims, particularly around Bouzy and Ambonnay (which are home to quarries of cendres noires), naturally has more of this “magical ingredient.” While chlorosis can be an issue for Chardonnay as well–requiring the use of fertilizers or cendres noires to supplement the soil–the risk isn’t as grave.
However, there is one red grape stronghold in the Côte des Blancs.
While still paced by Chardonnay (52%), this is the one area of the Côte des Blancs where you’ll find villages dominated by something else. If you have a good wine map (and read Part II of our series), you’ll see why.
Cutting between the Côte des Blancs and Côte de Sézanne, the Petit Morin is an east-west river that brings with it a fair amount of frost danger. Also, like the Marne, we see more diversity in soils with alluvial sand and clay joining the chalk party.
The Petit Morin also flows through the marshes of Saint-Gond–which played a key role in the First Battle of the Marne during World War I. Swampy marshland (and the threat of botrytis) frustrates Chardonnay and Pinot noir just as much as it frustrated the Germans.
Among the notable villages here:
Congy– (50% Pinot Meunier/28% Chardonnay) The home village of the renowned grower Ulysse Collin. This estate was one of the first to bring attention to the Val du Petit Morin.
Étréchy – The only premier cru outside of the heart of the Côte des Blancs. Neighboring both Vertus and Bergères-lès-Vertus (so away from the river), this follows the narrative of many of its 1er and Grand Cru peers by being 100% Chardonnay.
Villevenard – (53% Pinot Meunier/37% Chardonnay) Along with Sainte-Gemme in the Vallée de la Marne Rive Droite, Leuvrigny in the Rive Gauche and Courmas in the Vesle et Ardre of the Montagne de Reims, this autre cru is a source of Meunier for Krug. It’s also the home of Champagne Nominé Renard whose relatives help pioneer Champagne production in the village.
The video below (6:15) tells a little bit about their story with views of the vineyards starting at the 2:14 mark. You can see here how different the soils look compared to the heart of the Côte des Blancs with the Grand Crus.
Côte de Sézanne
Just about every wine book will describe the Côte de Sézanne as a “warmer, southern extension of the Côte des Blancs.” The region certainly upholds the Chardonnay banner with the grape accounting for more than 75% of plantings.
But most of those wine books are going to ignore the Val du Petit Morin mentioned above. And they’re certainly going to ignore the influence that the swampy Marais Saint-Gond has on the northern villages of the Côte de Sézanne. Here we see villages like Allemant and Broyes, which, while still Chardonnay dominant, have more diversity than the near monovarietal heart of the Côte des Blancs.
Even going south to the namesake autre cru of Sézanne, we see nearly a third of the vineyards devoted to red grapes. Here, further away from the Val du Petit Morin, we still have a fair amount of clay in the soil. This, combined with the warmer climate, shapes not only the Chardonnays of the Côte de Sézanne (riper, more tropical) but also paves the way for red grape plantings.
In the village of Montgenost, south of Sézanne, we get firmly back to Chardonnay country (94%). This is the home turf of the excellent grower Benoît Cocteaux. While the video below (2:12) is in French, it does have some great images of the area.
If the Côte de Sézanne is the southern extension of the Côte des Blancs, then the Vitryat is its southeastern arm. And it’s even more of a “mini-me” than the Sézannais.
Of the 15 autre crus here, four are 100% Chardonnay-Changy, Loisy-sur-Marne, Merlaut and Saint-Amand-sur-Fion. Another four have 99% of their vineyards exclusive to the grape with no village having less than 95% Chardonnay. Yeah, it’s pretty much a white-out here.
Among the teeniest, tiniest of exceptions worth noting are:
Glannes – 97% Chardonnay/3% Pinot noir with fruit going to Moët & Chandon.
Vanault-le-Châtel – 99.1% Chardonnay, 0.3% Pinot noir with 0.6% other (Pinot gris, Pinot blanc, Arbane and/or Petit Meslier). Louis Roederer purchases fruit from here.
Vavray-le-Grand – 99% Chardonnay/1% Pinot noir. A source of fruit for Billecart-Salmon.
The village of Montgueux (which we’ll cover in Part 4) shares the same Turonian era chalk as the Vitryat sub-region. Both are different from the Campanian chalk of the Côte des Blancs and Côte de Sézanne.
Even as the Côte des Blancs exhibits the supreme superlative in its Chardonnay-dominance, looking under the covers always reveals more.
But the biggest takeaway that I hope folks are getting from this series is that both the exceptions and superlatives make sense. The combination of soils, climate and topography lend themselves more to some grape varieties over the other.
This is the story of terroir. The problems come when we start thinking of regions as monolithic and accepting, prima facie, the butter knife narrative about them. Even when the superlatives are overwhelmingly true (i.e., the Côte des Blancs is known for outstanding Chardonnay), the reasons why cut deeper.
We’ll wrap up this series with a look at the Côte des Bar.
Welcome back! To get the lowdown on the series check out Part I where we explore the exceptions of the Montagne de Reims. In Part III and IV, we’ll check out the Côte des Blancs and the Aube/Côte des Bar.
As for today, we’re heading to the Vallée de la Marne.
The Marne river flowing past Épernay in the early 20th century.
If you’re one of those folks who “know enough to be dangerous” about Champagne, you’ll peg the Vallée de la Marne as the Pinot Meunier corner of the holy triumvirate of Champagne. However, as we noted in part one, neatly pigeonholing these regions with a single variety cuts about as deep as a butter knife.
Having good wine maps is an absolute must for any wine student.
Yes, you can find some online. For today’s journey through the Vallée de la Marne,this interactive mapfrom Château Loisel will be useful. But sometimes clicking between computer tabs is annoying compared to a physical map in front of you.
I mentioned the Louis Larmat maps yesterday. But let me give you two more excellent options.
Map of the Vallée de la Marne from the UMC website. In the lower-right, you can see the start of the Côte des Blancs with the Grand Cru village of Avize noted.
Unfortunately, these maps are mostly only available in France. However, I was able to buy several when I lived in the US through Amazon for around $11-13 each. You will still need to pay international shipping. But buying multiples at once helps offset that a little.
Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s World Atlas of Wine is always a reliable resource. It will list many of the villages and show topographical details. The only negative is that it doesn’t highlight the 17 subregions within Champagne.
Across the 103 villages of the Vallée de la Marne, it’s no shock that Pinot Meunier reigns supreme. The grape accounts for nearly 60% of all plantings.
The Marne river meandering by the premier cru village of Hautvillers.
As with many river valleys, frost is always going to be a hazard as cold air sinks and follows the rivers. Compared to larger bodies of waters such as lakes or estuaries, the relatively narrow and low-lying Marne doesn’t moderate the climate as dramatically.
That means that drops in temperature during bud break can be devastating for a vintage. A perfect example of this was the 2012 vintage.
This risk is most severe for Pinot noir. It buds the earliest followed soon after by Chardonnay. Then several days later, Pinot Meunier hits bud break–often missing the worst of the frost.
As we saw with many of the exceptions in the Montagne de Reims, the threat of frost in river valleys tilts the favor towards Meunier. It also helps that the grape is a tad more resistant to botrytis than Pinot noir and Chardonnay. This and other mildews thrive in the damp, humid conditions encouraged by the morning fog following the river.
Finally, while there is limestone throughout the Vallée de la Marne, it’s more marl (mixed with sand and clay) rather than chalk. Pinot noir and Chardonnay can do very well in these kinds of soils. However, Pinot Meunier has shown more affinity for dealing with the combination of cooler soils and a cooler, wetter climate.
But, of course, there are always exceptions–none more prominent than the Grande Vallée de la Marne.
In many ways, the Grande Vallée should be thought of as the southern extension of the Montagne de Reims. Its two Grand Crus, Aÿ and Tours-sur-Marne, share many similarities with its neighbors, Bouzy and Ambonnay.
Along with the “super premier cru” of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, these south-facing slopes produce powerful Pinot noirs with excellent aging potential. Notable vineyards here include Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses, Billecart-Salmon’s Clos Saint-Hilaire and Bollinger’s Clos St.-Jacques & Clos Chaudes Terres (used for their Vieilles Vignes Françaises).
Jamie Goode has a fantastic short video (1:55) walking through the two Bollinger vineyards. One thing to notice is that the vines are trained to stakes and propagated by layering.
Compared to most of the Montagne de Reims, the vineyards here are slightly steeper. They’re also at lower altitudes as the land slopes towards the river. However, in contrast to most of the Vallée de la Marne west of Cumières (the unofficial end of the Grande Vallée), the climate is warmer here–tempering some of the frost risks.
Also, the topsoils are thinner with the influence of chalky bedrock more keenly felt. This is particularly true in the eastern premier cru village of Bisseuil, which is planted to majority Chardonnay (66%) and only 6% Pinot Meunier. These grapes go into the cuvées of many notable Champagne producers. Among them, AR Lenoble, Deutz, Mumm and Gonet-Médeville.
Though Chardonnay is mostly a backstage player in the Grande Vallée, the premier cru Dizy (37% Chardonnay) joins Bisseuil as notable exceptions. This is the home turf of Jacquesson with Perrier-Jouët and Roederer also getting grapes from here.
Across the Grande Vallée, Pinot noir reigns supreme.
It accounts for nearly 65% of all the plantings among the 12 villages of the region. Here Pinot Meunier is a distant third with only around 15% of vineyard land devoted to it.
Meunier slowly starts to creep up in importance the further west you go. Here the soils get cooler and clay-rich with more sand. In the premier cru of Champillon, Pinot Meunier accounts for 31% of plantings and is an important source for Moët & Chandon.
Likewise, in its neighbor to the west, Hautvillers (the historical home of Dom Perignon), Meunier also accounts for around a third of vineyards. Of course, Moët & Chandon sees a good chunk of Hautvillers’ grapes along with Veuve Clicquot, Roederer, Jacquesson and Joseph Perrier.
The vlogger Ben Slivka has a 2-minute video of the area taken from a vista point near Champagne G.Tribaut.
Côteaux Sud d’Épernay
Across the river from the Grande Vallée is the city of Epernay. The hills extending south and slightly west make up an interesting transition area between the Vallée de la Marne and Côte des Blancs.
The chalky bedrock is closer to the surface, with far less sand than most of the Vallée de la Marne. However, there is considerably more clay (and less east-facing slopes) in the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay than the Côte des Blancs. The area is slightly dominated by Pinot Meunier (45%), with Chardonnay close behind at 43%. The city of Épernay, itself, is an autre cru with considerable Chardonnay plantings (60%).
There is also quite a bit of rocky–even flinty-soil in the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay. This is particularly true around the premier cru village of Pierry which was the home of the influential monk, Frère Jean Oudart.
Dom Perignon likely spent his career trying to get rid of bubbles. However, his near-contemporary Oudart (who outlived Perignon by almost three decades) actually used liqueur de tirage (sugar and yeast mixture) to make his wines sparkle intentionally.
Except for Pierry, all the villages of the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay are autre crus.
Another geeky cool thing about Laherte Frères’ Les 7 Champagne is that it’s made as a perpetual cuvee in a modified solera system.
However, there are many notable villages, including Chavot-Courcourt–home to one of Champagne’s most exciting wine estates, Laherte Frères.
While the plantings of Chavot-Courcourt are slightly tilted towards Pinot Meunier (51% to 44% Chardonnay), in Laherte Frères’ Les Clos vineyard, all seven Champagne grape varieties are planted. Here Aurélien Laherte uses Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, Arbane and Petit Meslier to blend with the traditional big three to make his Les 7 cuvée. This is another “Must Try” wine for any Champagne lover.
Further south, we get closer to the Côte des Blancs with thinner top soils leading to more chalky influences. Here we encounter a string of villages all paced by Chardonnay–Moslins (58%) Mancy (52%), Morangis (52%) and Monthelon (51%).
Going back towards the northwest, the soils get cooler with more marly-clay. We return to Meunier country in villages such as Saint-Martin-d’Ablois (80% Pinot Meunier) and Moussy (61% PM)–home to the acclaimed Meunier-specialist José Michel & Fils and a significant source of grapes for Deutz.
Vallée de la Marne Rive Droite and Rive Gauche
As we move west, the superlatives of the Vallée de la Marne being Pinot Meunier country becomes gospel. The cold, mostly clay, marl and sandy soils lend themselves considerably to the early-ripening Meunier. Accounting for more than 75% of plantings, it’s only slightly more dominant in the Rive Gauche than the Rive Droite (70%).
Because of its location, there are more north-facing slopes on the left bank of the Rive Gauche. Conversely, the right bank of the Rive Droite has mostly south-facing slopes. This topography plays into the narrative that the Meunier from the Rive Gauche tends to be fresher, with higher acidity. In contrast, those from the Rive Droite are often broader and fruit-forward.
However, there are several valleys and folds along tributaries running into the Marne. This leads to a variety of exposures in each area. But with these tributaries comes more prevalence for damp morning fog. Along these narrow river valleys, the risk of botrytis-bunch rot increases. While Pinot Meunier is slightly less susceptible than Pinot noir and Chardonnay, it’s still a significant problem in the Marne Valley. The 2017 vintage is a good example of that.
Though not about Champagne, the Napa Valley Grape Growers has a great short video (3:30) about botrytis. While desirable for some wines, it usually wreaks havoc in the vineyard.
Since there are few exceptions in these areas, I’ll note some villages worth taking stock of.
Damery (Rive Droite) – Located just west of Cumières, Damery is on the border with the Grande Vallée. With over 400 ha of vines, it’s the largest wine-producing village in the Vallée de la Marne. Planted to 61% Meunier, Damery is an important source for many notable Champagne houses. Among them, AR Lenoble, Billecart-Salmon, Joseph Perrier, Taittinger, Roederer, Bollinger and Pol Roger.
Sainte-Gemme (Rive Droite) – With over 92% Pinot Meunier, this autre cru is one of Krug’s leading sources for the grape.
Mardeuil (Rive Gauche) – With 30% Chardonnay, this village has the highest proportion of the variety in the Rive Gauche. Henriot gets a good chunk of this fruit along with Moët & Chandon.
Festigny (Rive Gauche) – A solitary hill within a warm valley, this village reminds Peter Liem, author of Champagne, of the hill of Corton in Burgundy. While there is more chalk here than typical of the Marne, this area is still thoroughly dominated by Meunier (87%). Festigny is noted for its many old vine vineyards–particularly those of Michel Loriot’s Apollonis estate.
Gary Westby of K & L Wine Merchants visited Loriot in Festigny where he made the video below (1:12).
Vallée de la Marne Rive Ouest and the Terroir de Condé
We wrap up our overview of the Vallée de la Marne by looking at the westernmost vineyards in Champagne. I also include the Terroir de Condé here because it seems like the classification of villages is frequently merged between the two.
Saâcy-sur-Marne (Ouest) – One of only three authorized Champagne villages in the Seine-et-Marne department that borders Paris. In fact, Saâcy-sur-Marne is closer to Disneyland Paris (50km) than it is to Epernay (70km). Going this far west, the soils change–bringing up more chalk. Here, in this left bank village, Chardonnay dominates with 60%.
Connigis (Ouest) – This is the only village in the western Marne Valley where Pinot noir leads the way. It just scrapes by with 45% over Meunier (41%). On the left bank of the river, Connigis used to be considered part of the Terroir de Condé. Today, Moët & Chandon is a significant purchaser of grapes from this autre cru.
Trélou-sur-Marne – Like all of the (current) Terroir de Condé, this village is overwhelmingly planted to Pinot Meunier (72%). However, it’s worth a historical note as being the first place where phylloxera was found in the Marne. This right bank village also helps supply the behemoth 30+ million bottle production of Moët & Chandon.
Kristin Noelle Smith has an 8-part series on YouTube where she focuses on notable producers of Champagne.
In episode three on Moët & Chandon (26:35), Smith touches on the impact of phylloxera in Champagne.
Though the Marne flows westward, the best way to think of the Vallée de la Marne is as a river of Pinot Meunier that changes as you go east. In the west, it truly lives up to the superlative of Meunier-dominance. This is because of the influence of the river and abundance of cold, clay and sand-based soils. But as we go east, and the river widens by the city of Épernay, the story changes considerably.
The part that “forks” north, the Grande Vallée, shares similarities with the southern Montagne de Reims. Here the terroir takes on more of the characteristics of the Pinot noir-dominant Grand Crus of Bouzy and Ambonnay. Whereas the south fork of the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay becomes gradually chalkier. This explains why you see more Chardonnay-dominant villages the closer you get to the Côte des Blancs.
Nailing these two big distinctions (as well as understanding why Meunier thrives in the Marne) is truly dangerous knowledge. Especially for your pocketbook!
So drink up and I’ll see you for part III on the Côte des Blancs!
But the biggest eye-opener for me was when I started noticing my elderly (70 year-plus) consumers buying canned wines.
My favorite was the lady who bought a bunch of these cans for her after church treat because the colors just made her feel cheerful.
All the hype and marketing reports attribute the canned wine boom to Millennials. It’s fun! It’s convenient! You can take cans backpacking and to concert festivals! This is the feedback that we’re getting from the focus groups.
Now, I sold a lot of canned wines to Millenials back in my retail days. No doubt. There is smoke to that fire.
But seeing my elderly customers adopting canned wines caught me off-guard. This is a demographic that is notoriously reluctant to embrace novelty and change.
So I did what anyone should do when you have real live customers standing in front of you on the sales floor.
I talked to them.
And I found out that their reasons for buying canned wine were pretty darn practical.
Some of my customers were buying them because cans were easier for them to open with a beer key than cork or screwtop. Another customer who regularly bought boxed wines told me that the 3 and 5L boxes were getting a little heavy for her to take up the stairs into her house. So she keeps a cooler in her car now with a few cans of wine and carries them up in her purse a couple at a time.
But the most common refrain when I asked these consumers why they were buying cans was that they simply liked the portion size and not worrying about waste. They found the standard 375ml to be perfect for a couple of glasses. One gentleman described it as his lunch-dinner combo. He’d open a can at lunch for a glass and then finish it off with his supper.
No waste. No worries about leftovers that might not taste as good the next day. And he doesn’t have to listen to his wife yelling at him for getting snockered.
Hearing these real-world perspectives made me realize that underneath all the smoke and hype about canned wines were some serious embers burning. Yeah, novelty and fun can get a fad flowing, but what makes something become a category are these practical considerations that criss-cross demographics.
That’s what wineries need to pay attention to.
The practical considerations that drive sales trends.
People are drinking less (but hopefully better) and they are paying attention to calories and serving sizes. Again, this is a movement that is being mostly attributed to Millennials and Generation Z, but it stretches across generations. Boomers are starting to drink less and Weight Watchers has always been recommending that the calorie conscious limit themselves to a 125ml (4.2 oz) serving size.
These are strong headwinds of influence that the wine industry is going to have to consider. The days of a couple (or an individual) regularly dusting off a full 750ml bottle in one setting are waning. We can’t bank on consumption levels staying the same.
Nor do I think we should put our faith in the Coravin saving the day.
Again, the Coravin is excellent for blind tastings but not for the Wednesday night pizza wine.
But it’s a $200+ investment with replacement capsules costing around $20 for a 2-pack. It’s not something that I’m going to use for my everyday drinking wine. Truthfully, outside of wine studies, I rarely use it on a wine less than $50. The capsule cost and wear & tear just aren’t worth it for me.
And the Vacu-Vin sucks ass. I’m sorry. I’m not going to waste my money on a placebo-product.
The bottom line though is that wineries really shouldn’t be banking their future on the solutions of other people’s products. They need to guide their own destiny and, to borrow my favorite phrase from Emetry’s Paul Mabray, “future-proof” their business.
So how do they answer the concerns of the moderation movement, serving-size and waste issues? Portion-controlled cans and boxed wines are one answer.
But let’s be serious.
Do you really see Lynch-Bages in a can?
Or how about a nice Napa Cab? A Washington Syrah? A Mosel Riesling?
Most likely not. For a lot of wineries, the canned and box wine options aren’t going to fit with their branding. But 375ml half-bottles do.
There’s just that pesky problem of production costs. I asked about this on Twitter a few days ago where several winery folks laid out the hard truth. Bottling 375ml doesn’t follow the same logistics as bottling 750mls with wineries not only needing different glassware but also different sized labels, capsules and case packaging.
Jason Haas of Tablas Creek was especially forthcoming.
At @TablasCreek 375s cost ~2/3 of a 750ml bottle, and cause headaches w/ keeping distributors in stock of the same vintage. And w/ the increase in by-the-glass lists there are fewer restaurants with good half-bottle programs. Still, we feel it’s worth it for the exposure. Barely.
In a Tablas Creek Vineyard Blog piece, Haas shared more details about the difficulties in selling half-bottles. Even though it cost 2/3 that of producing a 750ml, not many consumers are willing to pay 2/3 the price. The mental math and perception issues make it tough.
Back in my retail days, I saw a similar situation with magnums. Many would see a 1.5L magnum and expect it to be no more than double the price of the regular 750ml–or even cheaper because of a “bulk discount.” Eventually, more educated consumers would grasp that there is some premium for the bottling costs and storage potential.
That may be the case with 375ml–especially if the retail price of the wine can stay closer to 55-60% of the 750ml price. But I don’t doubt that will involve subsidizing some of the production cost–at least until supplies and logistics become favorable.
Nor do I doubt Haas’ other point about the dwindling demand (and production) that Tablas Creek sees in their half-bottle program.
At our apex in the late 2000’s we were bottling 450 cases each of our Esprit and Esprit Blanc in half-bottles. By the early 2010’s we were down to 250 cases of each. Then 200, then 150. Last year we bottled just 125 cases of each. This year, it will be only 75. — Jason Haas, “Is there a future for half-bottles?” June 3rd, 2019
Being ahead of the headwinds.
It doesn’t shock me that a winery as innovative and savvy as Tablas Creek is 15 years ahead of the curve. I give massive credit to Haas for picking up critical insights in the early 2000s from the sommeliers at his restaurant accounts about their use of half-bottles.
I know for myself, some of the most gang-buster experiences I’ve ever had playing the Somm Game (where I essentially give a somm my budget and let them pick out anything) have been at programs that made liberal use of their half-bottle selection.
But being ahead of the curve means that the timing isn’t always there to hit a home run.
That is always going to be the scourage of innovation. Sometimes the best ideas for the future are ones that haven’t worked out the best in the past. Back in April, I posed this question to wine writer and producer Robert Joseph when he was featured on Sorcha Holloway’s #UKWineHour Twitter chat.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 thatsaline 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.
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.
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.
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:
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
Champagne is the benchmark for all sparkling wine. Any wine student studying for advance certifications needs to be able to explain what makes Champagne unique. They also should be familiar with important producers–both big houses and influential growers.
While there are certainly online resources available, few things top a great reference book that can be highlighted and annotated to your heart’s content.
One of the best tips for wine students (especially on a budget) is to check out the Used Book offerings on Amazon. Often you can find great deals on wine books that are just gently used. This lets you save your extra spending money for more wine to taste.
Since the prices of used books change depending on availability, I’m listing the current best price at time of writing. However, it is often a good idea to bookmark the page of a book that you’re interested in and check periodically to see if a better price becomes available.
Here are the five most essential books on Champagne that every wine student should have.
The Christie’s encyclopedia is ground zero for understanding the basics about Champagne (production methods, styles, grape varieties, etc). But, even better, it is a launching pad for understanding the world of sparkling wine at large and seeing how Champagne fits in that framework.
While Champagne will always be a big focus of most wine exams, as my friend Noelle Harman of Outwines discovered in her prep work for Unit 5 of the WSET Diploma, you do need to have a breadth of knowledge of other sparklers.
In her recent exam, not only was she blind tasted on a Prosecco and sparkling Shiraz from Barossa but she also had to answer theory questions on Crémant de Limoux and the transfer method that was developed for German Sekt but became hugely popular in Australia & New Zealand. While there are tons of books on Champagne, I’ve yet to find another book that extensively covers these other sparkling wines as well as the Christie’s encyclopedia.
Changes in the new edition
Global warming has made England an exciting region for sparkling wine. The revised edition of Christie’s Encyclopedia has 17 page devoted to the sparklers of the British Isles.
Tom Stevenson wrote the first Christie’s Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine back in the late 1990s. That edition tallied 335 pages while the newest edition (2013) has 528 pages with more than half of those pages covering other notable sparkling wine regions like England, Franciacorta, Tasmania and more. The new edition also has a fresh perspective and feel with the addition of Champagne specialist Essi Avellan as a significant contributor.
In addition to covering the terroir and characteristics of more than 50 different regions, the Christie’s encyclopedia also includes over 1,600 producer profiles. The profiles are particularly helpful with the major Champagne houses as they go into detail about the “house style” and typical blend composition of many of their wines.
The long time scribe of the outstanding site ChampagneGuide.net, Peter Liem is the first author I’ve came across that has taken a Burgundian approach towards examining the terroirs of Champagne.
For a region that is so dominated by big Champagne houses who blend fruit from dozens (if not hundreds) of sites, it’s easy to consider terroir an afterthought. After all, isn’t Champagne all about the blend?
But Champagne does have terroir and as grower Champagnes become more available, wine lovers across the globe are now able to taste the difference in a wine made from Cramant versus a wine made from Mailly.
Several of the most delicious Champagnes I’ve had this year have came from the Côte des Bar–like this 100% Pinot blanc from Pierre Gerbais. Yet, historically, this region has always been considered the “backwoods” of Champagne and is given very little attention in wine books.
Liem’s work goes far beyond just the the terroir of the 17 Grand Cru villages but deep into the difference among the different areas of the Côte des Blancs, Montagne de Reims, the Grande Vallée, the Vallée de la Marne, Côteaux Sud d’Épernay, Côteaux du Morin, Côte de Sézanne, Vitryat, Montgueux and the Côte des Bar.
Most books on Champagne don’t even acknowledge 6 of those 10 sub-regions of Champagne!
Not only does Liem discuss these differences but he highlights the producers and vineyards that are notable in each. No other book on Champagne goes to this level of detail or shines a light quite as brightly on the various terroirs and vineyards of Champagne.
Liem’s book also comes with prints of Louis Larmat’s vineyard maps from the 1940s. While I’m a big advocate of buying used books, these maps are worth paying a little more to get a new edition. This way you are guaranteed getting the prints in good condition. I’m not kidding when I say that these maps are like a wine geek’s wet dream.
Walters believes that over the years that Champagne has lost its soul under the dominance of the big Champagne houses. While he claims that the intent of his book is not to be “an exercise in Grandes Marques bashing”, he definitely heaps a fair amount of scorn on the winemaking, viticulture and marketing practices that have elevated the Grandes Marques to their great successes.
Throughout the book he “debunks” various myths about Champagne (some of which I personally disagree with him on) as well as interviews many of influential figures of the Grower Champagne movement.
While there is value in Bursting Bubbles from a critical thinking perspective, it is in those interviews where this book becomes essential for wine students. There is no denying the importance of the Grower Champagne movement in not only changing the market but also changing the way people think about Champagne. Growers have been key drivers in getting people to think of Champagne as a wine and not just a party bottle.
Serious students of wine need to be familiar with people like Pascal Agrapart, Anselme Selosse, Francis Egly, Jérôme Prévost and Emmanuel Lassaigne. Walters not only brings you into their world but puts their work into context. While other Champagne books (like Christie’s, Peter Liem’s and David White’s) will often have profile blurbs on these producers, they don’t highlight why you need to pay attention to what these producers are doing like Bursting Bubbles does.
In wine studies, it’s so easy to get caught up in the technical details of terroir, grape varieties and winemaking that you lose sight of a fundamental truth. Wine is made by people.
Of course, the land and the climate play a role but the only way that the grape makes its way to the glass is through the hands of men and women. Their efforts, their story, marks every bottle like fingerprints. To truly understand a wine–any wine–you need to understand the people behind it.
During the height of World War I, when the vineyards and streets of Champagne were literal battlefields, the Champenois descended underground and lived in the caves that were used to aged Champagne. This photo shows a makeshift school that was set up in the caves of the Champagne house Mumm.
While there are great history books about Champagne (one of which I’ll mention next), no one has yet brought to life the people of Champagne quite as well as the Kladstrups do in Champagne.
Set against the backdrops of the many wars that have scarred the region–particularly in the 19th & 20th century–the Kladstrups share the Champenois’ perseverance over these troubles. Even when things were at their bleakest, the people of Champagne kept soldiering on, producing the wine that shares their name and heritage.
If you wonder why wine folks have a tough time taking sparkling wines like Korbel, Cook’s and Andre’s (so called California “champagnes”) seriously, read this book. I guarantee that you will never use the word Champagne “semi-generically” again.
It’s not about snobbery or marketing. It’s about respect.
David White is known for founding the blog Terroirist. He gives a great interview with Levi Dalton on the I’ll Drink To That! podcast about his motivations for writing this book. While he acknowledges that there are lots of books about Champagne out on the market, he noticed that there wasn’t one that was deep on content but still accessible like a pocket guide.
While the producer profiles in the “pocket guide” section of the book overlaps with the Christie and Liem’s books (though, yes, much more accessible) where White’s book becomes essential is with his in-depth coverage on the history of the Champagne region.
A Tour of History
A watershed moment for sparkling Champagne was in 1728 when Louis XV struck down the laws that prohibited shipping wine in bottles. Prior to this, all French wines had to be shipped in casks. Soon after, as White’s book notes, the first dedicated Champagne houses were founded with Ruinart (1729) and Chanoine Frères (1730).
The first section of the book (Champagne Through The Ages) has six chapters covering the history of the Champagne region beginning with Roman times and then the Franks to Champagne’s heritage as a still red wine. It continues on to the step-by-step evolution of Champagne as a sparkling wine. These extensively detailed chapters highlights the truth that sparkling Champagne was never truly invented. It was crafted–by many hands sculpting it piece by piece, innovation by innovation.
There are certainly other books that touch on these history details like Hugh Johnson’s Vintage: The Story of Wine (no longer in print), Kolleen M. Guy’s When Champagne Became French, Tilar J. Mazzeo’s The Widow Clicquot as well as previous books mentioned here. But they all approach Champagne’s history from different piecemeal perspectives while White’s work is a focused and chronological narrative.
I also love in his introduction how White aptly summarizes why Champagne is worth studying and worth enjoying.
“From dinner with friends to a child’s laughter or a lover’s embrace, every day has moments worth the warmth of reflection—and worthy of a toast.
Life is worth celebrating. And that’s why Champagne matters.” — David White, But First, Champagne
Richard Baxter is a plastic surgeon who wrote his first edition of Age Gets Better with Wine back in, honestly, I don’t know.
The oldest date for the 1st edition I could find was in 2007 yet somehow the 2nd edition came out in 2002. My best guess is that the two years were probably switched by Amazon. However, the Google eBooks copy of the 2nd edition dates to 2009. So who knows?
Regardless, quite a bit has changed in our scientific understanding of wine so this 2018 revision will likely have a lot of new material.
This books intrigues me because of the objective approach it appears to take on the many conflicting studies about the role of wine and health. I’ve not had a chance to read either of the two previous editions but I think I’m going to pull the trigger on this one. Blogger Joey Casco of TheWineStalker.net had a great review of the second edition. Describing it as “a wine-science-history geek’s wet dream”, he posted a 2 minute review of the 2nd edition back in 2016.
Theise’s previous work, Reading between the Wines, was a mix of manifesto and anthology taken from his years of writings for his import catalogs. Now part of the Skurnik portfolio, Theise still regularly writes about vintage years, producer profiles and numerous (often humorous) rants about the world of wine.
Frequently in his writings, Theise expounds on the question that is the title of his current release What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking? What makes a bottle of wine worth the money to procure and the time spent cellaring and savoring? What makes anything worth putting into your body or sharing as part of a moment with loved ones?
Rarely do wine drinkers really stop to think about the answers to those questions. I suspect that Theise’s book will give a lot of food for thought and be a great read.
This is the updated edition to Hammond’s 2010 release that dived into the world of mass-produced bulk brands and supermarket wines. With the link to the first edition, you can “look inside” and get an idea about her approach and the type of wines being reviewed.
In many ways, I applaud her snob-free approach but I do wonder what audience she is aiming for? Many of the folks who buy the Lindeman’s, Kendall Jackson, Fetzer and Sutter Home wines she reviews aren’t necessarily the folks who purchase wine guides.
Likewise, the near third of consumers who fall into the combined categories of “Traditionalists” and “Satisfied Sippers” are already buying their favorite mass produced wines being profiled here. It doesn’t seem likely that one writer’s opinion that Bulk Brand X is slightly better than Bulk Brand Y will sway many people.
Perhaps the 20% of Image Seekers and 12% of Enthusiasts who are more inclined to look at wine guides will be tempted but often these segments of consumers either eventually settle into “Traditionalists” and “Satisfied Sippers” or move beyond the $15 & under category this book focuses on.
Good, Better and Less Snobby
You may not like them or drink them but there is no denying that Gallo has done a masterful job of marketing and selling Barefoot Wines.
However, I do see this book being a huge benefit to students pursuing certifications such as the WSET Diploma level which focuses on the business of wine in Unit 1. Often these students need a bit of an “anti-snobbery” jolt to realize that the vast majority of wine drinkers don’t drink the same kind of wines we do.
In our rush to dismiss these wines, we often forget that there are reasons why things like Barefoot, Franzia and Apothic are top selling brands in the US.
I get it. They’re not my cup of tea either and I don’t vaguely hide my personal sentiments about them much on this blog.
I see value in reading Carolyn Evans Hammond’s Good, Better, Best Wines as a window into the world of the “Traditionalists” and “Satisfied Sippers” and what they are drinking. While I don’t think anyone will ever quite cracked the code of how to convince these drinkers to “trade out”, much less “trade up”, we’ll never come close if we don’t first understand where they’re starting from.
He does contribute a chapter to Wine Reads which includes over 20 pieces of fiction and non-fiction writings about wine. Other writers in the work includes Rex Pickett (of Sideways fame), A. J. Liebling of The New Yorker, an excerpt from Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route, Jancis Robinson and more.
Just like with Makansi’s book, I can see this being the perfect companion for long flights or train rides.
This Two Vintners “OG” Gewürztraminer made in an orange wine style with extended maceration blew me away with how complex and delicious it was.
For many wine lovers, “orange wine” is the biggest wine trend that they’ve heard of but haven’t had the chance to try yet.
It’s tempting to call this a fad and chalk it up to Millennials’ latest fancy. But this is a really old winemaking style that has been around for as long as wine has been made. At its most simplest, orange wine is basically just white wine that has spent time in contact with grape skins. This exposes it more to oxygen than the modern method of quickly pressing white grapes and processing them anaerobically.
While a couple 2017 releases like Marissa A. Ross’s Wine. All the Time, Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron’s Natural Wine and Alice Feiring’s The Dirty Guide to Wine touched a little on orange wine, to the best of my knowledge, Amber Revolution is the first book devoted exclusively to the topic.
Judging by the recent popularity of the category, Woolf’s book is quite timely. Here he covers the history and production methods behind orange wines, as well as profiles 180 producers in 20 countries.
On Instagram Simon Woolf had this advice for folks wanting to get a copy of his book. “Btw although in the US the book is only available from October, in Europe it can also be ordered direct from my site. Also for US customers, best to order direct from the publisher.”
The new edition of Windows on the World likely will also touch on orange wine and the renaissance in Georgian winemaking of using Kvevri (Qvevri) amphora jars buried in the ground to ferment and age wine.
From the very first edition in 1985, Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World books have been a benchmark standard in wine education.
The current 2018 edition has been expanded to 432 pages (up from 384 pages in the 2016 edition). It includes more detailed coverage of South America, Australia, China and New Zealand with new maps and infographics.
For geeks on a budget, there is one advantage of the frequent updates and releases. You can get used copies of previous editions of Windows on the World super cheap on Amazon. For instance, the 2012 edition is going for around $1.30 for the paperback version. While a tad outdated, at 352 pages it still covers the basics and the classic wine regions very well.
This is probably the book that I’m most excited for because of the atlas’ focus on blind tasting. As the Amazon description notes:
“There are books that describe the geography of wine regions. And there are books that describe the way basic wines and grapes should taste. But there are no books that describe the intricacies of the way wines from various subregions, soils, and appellations should taste.”
All these wines will have distinctive profiles (typicity) with the examination board picking examples that demonstrate these distinctions well. Not only do you need to train yourself how to identify these wines, when you get to examinations like those of the Institute of Masters of Wine you will also have to explain why these distinct profiles exist (terroir, viticultural decisions, winemaking, etc).
Dearth of Blind Tasting Resources
There are not many resources out there tackling blind tasting and typicity from an examination point of view. Of course, there is material from WSET and CMS that you get with classes but outside sources are hard to find. Neel Burton’s The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting has been the closest I’ve found. But even that strays more into a “Windows on the World” type overview instead of getting into the nitty gritty details of teaching you to look for this while tasting a Chablis Grand Cru like Les Clos and this while tasting a Chablis Premier Cru like Montmains, etc.
I’ll be honest. At this point in my studies, all I can tell you is that they are both delicious.
Parr and Mackay’s book looks like it’s going to fill in that sorely needed niche–at least regarding terroir.
I’m only about 3 to 6 hours away from the wine regions of the Okanagan and Vancouver Island. Yet, in all practicality, the wines of British Columbia might as well be from China. Here in the US, they are incredibly difficult to find. Even restaurants in Vancouver are far more likely to offer French, Australian and Californian labels instead of local BC wines.
While I haven’t been overly impressed with the Bordeaux varieties in BC, this 2016 Clos du Soleil Cab Franc/Cab Sauv rose from the Upper Bench of the South Similkameen Valley was quite tasty.
But every time I do eventually get my hands on wine from BC, I tend to enjoy them. It’s clear that this is a growing industry. With the influence of climate change, it is only going to become more significant on the world’s wine stage. This is definitely an area worth exploring.
But with 370 pages, I can see Luke Whittall (already an established authority on BC wines with his blog and podcast at Wine Country BC) going into far more detail about the British Columbia wine scene and the remarkable growth it is has seen in the last 20 years.
But this month is the real Washington Wine Month. I swear! The Washington State Wine Commission even bought the domain www.winemonth.com to let the world know that August is Washington Wine Month.
Okay, it’s silly marketing but, hey, why waste a good excuse to drink and geek out about Washington wine? I’m in.
While throughout the month I’ll be highlighting Washington wines in my 60 Second Wine Reviews, I wanted to kick off the fun with a little primer of some of the great blogs, Twitter feeds and books that I used when researching my posts on Washington wine and wineries.
At the end I also feature a highlight of some of my favorite Washington-related posts and reviews that I’ve done here on Spitbucket. If you want to stay up to date with the fun be sure to subscribe so you can get posts sent right to your email.
Great Wine Blogs with a Washington-bent
Washington Wine Report (@wawinereport) — Though Sean Sullivan has moved up to the big leagues of wine writing being the Washington beat reporter for Wine Enthusiast, he still finds time for his Washington Wine Report that has been the benchmark standard for Washington wine blogging for some time.
Screenshot from Great Northwest Wines (8/1/18)
Great Northwest Wine (@GreatNWWine) — More of an online magazine than necessarily a blog but few cover the Pacific Northwest wine scene better than Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman.
VinoSocial (@VinoSocialNancy) — While not completely Washington-centric, Nancy Croisier does have a lot of experience and great insights to share about the Washington wine industry. She also wrote up a great post with all the relevant hashtags for folks wanting to promote and follow Washington Wine Month activities.
Wine Diva Lifestyle (@Shona425) — Shona Milne is one of the original bloggers covering the Woodinville wine scene that is now home to over 100 wineries.
Woodinville Wine Blog (@woodinvillewb) — With such explosive growth in the industry, it’s great to have multiple feet on the ground covering it. Written by a team of 3 friends who explore the food and events happening in Woodinville as well the wine.
Write for Wine (@WriteforWine) — Though Margot Savell’s blog has a global scope, she is another pioneer in the Washington wine blogosphere which she has been covering since 2007.
Wild Walla Walla Wine Woman — While Catie McIntyre Walker’s blog isn’t as active as it once was, she–like Shona–is one of the original pioneers in the Washington wine blogging scene with Catie’s focus being on the outstanding wines of Walla Walla. With over 140 wineries, there is still a lot of great stuff to discover.
Washington Wineries on Twitter Worth a Follow
Of course all wineries are going to want to promote their wines and events, but I like following these wineries because they will also give you behind the scenes peaks into the fun stuff of making wine instead of only posting promotions and bottle porn pics.
Figgins Estate/Leonetti (@FigginsFerment) — This is more of Chris Figgins’ personal twitter account but it has great content and pics showing life in Walla Walla as well as the development of their new Toil vineyard (my review of one their wines) and construction of their Figgins barrel room caves.
WineTrails of Washington by Steve Roberts — Also a tad outdated (2007) but still a quite useful tool to plan your winery tours in Washington. Just keep in mind that we have around 300 more wineries than we did when Roberts first wrote his book. Still my dog-earred and marked up copy gets pulled off the shelf from time to time as I compare the growth in his very well thought out “wine trails” that group wineries by locations. His WineTrails of Walla Walla (2010) is a smidgen more up-to-date.
The Wine Project: Washington State’s Winemaking History by Ronald Irvine and Dr. Walter Clore — A required textbook for my Washington Wine History class when I was at the Northwest Wine Academy because this truly is the textbook dictum of the people and moments that deeply impacted this state’s wine industry.
A Few of My Favorite Washington-related SpitBucket posts
The author with Bob Betz (right) and Louis Skinner (left) at Betz Family Winery
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of electric bottle openers–preferring my old trusty double-hinged corkscrew or Rabbit-lever openers. My biggest complaint is how easy the electric bottle openers seem to burn out after a year or two of use. But for less than $15, even getting a year of use might not be that bad. So while this will be a pass for me, I can see this being a decent buy–especially for senior citizens or folks with arthritis that may have difficulties with other openers.
I paid around $300 for my old Coravin Model 1000 system three years ago so I will say that this is a very good deal. If my current Coravin wasn’t working perfectly fine, I would be very tempted because even though you can get the cheaper Coravin Model 1 for $199.99, that is a distinctly cheaper, less solidly built version than the regular Coravin.
There is a lot of marketing hype around the Coravin so I will be upfront with some of my real world experiences using it. There is the caveat that potentially the newer models have improved some of my grievances.
The author using her Coravin to pour a flight of white wines.
Unless you spring for the $70 kit with the “fast pour” needle, pouring from the Coravin is SLOW!!! You eventually learn some tricks like tilting the bottle upwards and getting the feel right with hitting the gas but it will still take nearly 30 seconds to get a 5 oz pour.
That doesn’t seem like a lot of time but it definitely feels longer while your standing there holding the bottle and waiting for it to finally fill the glass. Compound this with doing a tasting featuring multiple bottles and the time adds up.
The first pour is always a little gassy and “spritzy”. It blows off and won’t impact most wine drinkers but if you are like me and use the Coravin system to help with studying for blind tasting exams, it can throw you off at first.
It doesn’t preserve the wine no where near as long as the marketing hype says it would. Instead of several months or years, realistically I feel like I can get 5 to 7 weeks with reds and 3 to 4 weeks with whites before I start noticing a change in flavor. It’s not like the wine is immediately bad or tasting oxidized but I certainly notice a distinct change that seems to exponentially increase with each revisiting after that point.
Will Clos Saint-Jacques go with black garlic and salume pizza? Let’s find out!
Even with only a few weeks worth of preservation, the Coravin is still a great tool to help you get the most out of your wine enjoyment. Instead of having to feel like you need to finish a bottle within a day or two, you can stretch it out over several glasses for days/weeks.
With dinner you can have different wines with each course, creating your own version of The Somm Game. Want to test out various pairings? Knock yourself out and pour two different wines to see what works best. If you and your spouse can’t agree on what wine to have with dinner, you can each have whatever you like.
And, most importantly to me, it truly is invaluable as a study tool for tasting exams. Want to taste the terroir differences of the crus of Barolo? Explore what makes “mountain fruit” of Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain so different than the Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the Stags Leap District and valley floor of Napa? You can spend several hundreds of dollars getting examples of these wines and then have to face a decision.
Do you have a big tasting party with friends and open them all at once?
Do you open them up one at a time, take your notes and then try to compare them after the fact?
You can use the Coravin and pour samples of all the different wines you want to compare and contrast and then revisit that tasting several times over the next few weeks.
That, for me, has always been the Coravin’s strongest selling point and the area where I know this tool has saved me the most money.
Of course, for new releases there are not many used options so this coupon deal could be use for several of the titles featured in previous Geek Notes that are over $20.
From June— Practical Field Guide to Grape Growing and Vine Physiology by Daniel Schuster, Laura Bernini and Andrea Paoletti. $40
From March — Wine: A social and cultural history of the drink that changed our lives by Rod Phillips. $34.95 and Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grape by Kenneth Friedenreich. $29.99 hardcover.
If you come across any deals that I missed, post them in the comments below.