Tag Archives: Bursting Bubbles

Geek Notes — Insider’s Peek Into Champagne

I came across two great videos (≈ 10 min) on YouTube that share an insider’s peek into Champagne production. Both of these videos give a perspective that you don’t often find in wine books.

The first one is produced by GuildSomm. They have an excellent YouTube channel that is well worth subscribing to. Most of their videos are in the 10 to 12 minute range with the longest, on the wines of Burgundy, being almost 22 minutes.

The production quality is top notch with beautiful cinematography that really give you a feel for a region. Each episode is also jammed pack with useful historical details and insights from producers. Below the video I’ll highlight my notes from this Dec 27, 2016 episode on The Wines of Champagne.

Notes From The Wines of Champagne

(1:59) Charles Philipponnat of Philipponnat talks a little about the distinction of the sub-region of the Grande Vallée de la Marne from the greater Vallée de la Marne. Most wine books (and even the beginning of this video) treat the entire Vallée de la Marne as a monolith–Peter Leim’s Champagne: The Essential Guide being one of the few exceptions.

But the terroir (and wines produced here) are remarkably different. The Grand Vallée is dominated by Pinot noir with south facing slopes bordering the north side of the Marne river. Heading west through the rest of the Vallée de la Marne, the vineyards flank both sides of the river. Here Pinot Meunier is the main variety with these western sites being more frost prone as well.

(2:52) Rudolph Peters of Pierre Peters highlights the similarities between the Côte des Blancs and Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. Both have east facing slopes with abundant limestone that Chardonnay thrives in. Great close up shots of the vineyard soils where you can see the seashell fossils.

(4:00) The narrator, Tai Ricci, goes into the history of the 1910/11 Champagne Riots with some terrific photographs from the period. This part definitely has an old-school “History Channel” feel to it. Anyone wanting to learn more about the riots and issues behind it, I highly recommend Don and Petie Kladstrup’s Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times. Hugh Johnson also covers it quite a bit in his all around excellent wine history book Vintage: The Story of Wine.

Grand Cru and Growers
 Jean Fannière Grand Cru Champagne

If the wine is 100% sourced from grapes grown in Grand Cru villages, like this Champagne Varnier Fannière’s Jean Fannière, the words “Grand Cru” can appear on the bottle.

(5:46) The difference in Grand Cru designations between Burgundy and Champagne are highlighted here.  Whereas in Burgundy the vineyards are classified, in Champagne it is the village. While there are over 300 villages in Champagne, only 17 villages are designated as Grand Cru.  If they were using the Champagne model in Burgundy, then villages like Vosne-Romanee, Puligny-Montrachet, Chambolle-Musigny would be “Grand Cru”. Then you would have villages like Santenay, St. Aubin and Marsannay designated as Premier Cru and so forth.

It’s not likely that Champagne will ever adopt the Burgundian model of having vineyards individually classified. However, there are certainly notable vineyards with “Grand Cru” reputations. Vineyards like Krug’s Clos d’Ambonnay, Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses, Franck Bonville’s Belles Voyes, Billecart-Salmon’s Clos St-Hilaire and Pierre Peters’ Les Chêtillons have a long history of acclaim. Additionally, Peter Leim’s book lists numerous single vineyard bottlings from nearly ever major Grand Cru and Premier Cru village. While some of these certainly can get pricey, I found several on Wine Searcher in the $50-70 range.

(6:48) The topic moves to the difference between Grower Champagnes versus the big negociant houses. Here Rudolph Peters highlights some of the advantages and disadvantages for both. As I noted in my review of Robert Walter’s Bursting Bubbles, while I definitely get more excited about Grower Champagnes and their more terroir driven expressions, I don’t agree with the idea that blended Champagnes (like what the negociant houses do) are inferior.

In fact, I think the master blenders of the major houses have remarkable skills and winemaking talents. It’s just that the proliferation of a “house style” can get repetitive and boring. They may be really delicious the first or second time you have it, but by the third time you have a bottle of something like the Veuve Cliquot Yellow Label, you begin feeling like you’re just drinking the same ole, same ole over and over again.

But that’s kind of the point.

Like an army of clones…or the Borg.
You will be assemblage! La résistance est futile!

It’s certainly a successful business model (much like McDonald’s) but it’s one that I get easily bored with—as I was at last year’s Champagne Gala at Daniel’s that was headlined by two vintages of Dom Perignon.

While there were some differences between the two vintages (with the 2004 being far superior to the 2006) neither of the bottles were any more distinctive or exciting than the other Moët & Chandon wines with the NV Rosé Impérial being the best Champagne of the evening.

Sparkling Wine Making From the Wine & Spirit Education Trust

This video was uploaded on Nov 21, 2012 by YouTube user McWilliamsWinesVideo who hasn’t uploaded anything else in nearly 6 years. I strongly suspect this was a sloppily edited recording of video series in the 1980s produced by First Growth Productions for the Wine & Spirit Education (WSET).

I tried to find the original broadcast on the WSET website but to no avail. Nor could I find an online presence for First Growth Productions either. WSET does have its own YouTube channel for their 3 Minute Wine School videos taught by Masters of Wine Jancis Robinson and Tim Atkin. While it hasn’t been updated in over 2 years, the 21 videos featured do have a lot of great content worth viewing.

The quality of this video is no where close to that of the GuildSomm video above. But the illustrations and up close view of the winemaking process used in Champagne has a lot of value.

My Notes From Sparkling Wine Making

(1:46) A discussion and illustration of the transfer method. This is how most 187ml airline splits are made but apparently was quite popular for Australian sparkling wines when this video was produced.

(2:28) Here the video switches to Champagne where they note that the grapes are often harvested in October. Boy has global warming changed that! This year’s harvest started on the 20th of August and was the fifth harvest since 2003 to start in August. And several vintages, like the very stellar 2015 vintage, have started the first week of September.

(3:45) A little subtle dissing of the Aube which is not out of line for the mindset of this time period. The Aubois led the Champagne Riots highlighted in the GuildSomm video when they were threatened with expulsion from the Champagne zone. It’s only recently that a wave of high quality grower producers from the Côte des Bar sub-region of the Aube have turned this into one of the most exciting regions in Champagne.

A crazy delicious blend of 25% Arbane, 25% Petit Meslier, 25% Blanc Vrai (Pinot blanc) and 25% Chardonnay.
It’s a hunt to find this unicorn but will certainly be worth it if you can score a bottle!

Producers like Pierre Gerbais, Cédric Bouchard, Vouette et Sorbée, Jacques Lassaigne, Marie-Courtin, Nathalie Falmet, Drappier and more are making outstanding bubbles. I’m still trying to hunt down another bottle of Pierre Gerbais’ L’Originale (100% Pinot blanc) and the Drappier Quattuor Blanc de Blancs that I had while playing the Somm Game in Vegas is a strong contender for my Wine of The Year.

Seriously, if you love Champagne, you need to start looking for bottles from the Côte des Bar and Aube.

Getting Into The Nitty-Gritty

(3:52) A really good demonstration of the traditional pressing process in large wooden basket presses. Champagne’s wine laws strictly regulate the press yields. Producers can use only the first 100 liters of juice from every 160 kgs of grapes they press. The first 80 of these liters (the cuvée) are highly values as the best quality. The next 20 liters are the taille. This is often used for producing fruity, aromatic wines that are meant to be consumed young.

(4:45) The video doesn’t explain why but says that the houses who ferment their wines in oak prefer casks from Hungary. Will need to research this more. Wines and Vines has a pretty in-depth article about Hungarian oak (though doesn’t mentioned Champagne houses using them) while the home-winemaking site MoreWine! has a simple breakdown of the difference between French, American and Hungarian oaks.

(6:54) This is probably the best segment of the entire video. A fantastic explanation and illustration of riddling. At the 7:15 mark  they show an illustration of the two different types of sediments that form during the autolysis process. Again, this is something that wine books rarely draw out and explain. But learning about these two different types of sediment (heavy & sticky vs light & dusty) helps explain why the riddling process needs to be so methodical.

Enjoy the videos! If you find these Geek Notes breakdowns helpful, post a comment below!

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Playing the Somm Game in Vegas

“Unicorns aren’t real, but the house advantage is.”

I just got back from a weekend in Las Vegas where I lost far more than I care to admit at the casinos.

Growing up in St. Louis with church bingo and riverboat casinos, I will always have soft-spot for the gambler’s heart.

But man does it suck losing.

However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve found one game that I love playing in Vegas where I’m a sure bet to come out a big winner–the Somm Game.

How to Play

It’s a simple game. You go to a nice restaurant with a thick, Bible-size wine list.

Give the sommelier your budget, what food you are ordering, let them know you are open to anything and then let them take it from there.

That’s it. That’s the game and the payoff is almost always better than anything you’ll find at the tables or slots.

Why the Somm Game works

First off, your objective is to have a great dining experience. You know who else shares that same objective? The sommelier. Their entire job is to give you a memorable experience so the house odds are already in your favor.

Just like I’m sure you perform best at your job when your clients let you do your thing, so too do sommeliers really get a chance to shine when you simply trust them to do what they are trained to do—which is far more than only opening bottles and pouring them into decanters.

And *spoiler alert* sometimes they have bottles like this just “lying around”.

Sommeliers are professionals and many have spent years honing their craft, studying, tasting and traveling the world of wine. With certification programs from the Court of Master Sommeliers, Wine & Spirits Education Trust, International Sommelier Guild and the like, the quality of wine education in the industry has never been higher. Why let that advantage go to waste?

And it is an advantage–one that even the most savvy and experienced wine drinkers don’t readily have.

Look I know my fair share about wine. I can open up a wine list and recognize most every name and region on it. I can hold my own rattling off producers, soil types, grapes varieties and facts. But I’ll tell you what I don’t necessarily know—how everything on the list is drinking now and what exactly will pair best with the particular flavors of the chef’s cuisine.

No matter how much a person knows about wine, the odds are that the sommelier team knows their own list and their own food at least a little bit better than you do. Especially at a restaurant with a good wine program that involves frequent tastings and pairing exercises, they’re going to have a leg up on you with what is drinking great right now and is pairing well.

“But Amber, I don’t want to get ripped off by restaurant mark ups!”

Okay, I know restaurant mark ups can be painful to swallow. Believe me, it’s even tougher when you’ve been in the business and know intimately what the typical wholesale and retail prices are of the wines you frequently see on wine lists.

But here’s the beauty of playing the Somm Game and trusting the sommelier to make the wine picks—most likely you’re going to avoid getting the crazy mark up wines and instead get the gems that the sommeliers themselves would pick for their own dinners.

By trusting the sommeliers you are far less likely to get “ripped off” by markups than you would be ordering on your own. They don’t need to sell you the crazy high mark up wines because your fellow diners are already buying those wines and paying the “Ego Tax” on them.

The “Ego Tax”

General rule of thumb–if an average wine drinker would recognize the name on a wine list then you are probably going to pay an “ego tax” ordering it.

Restaurants are businesses and all businesses aim to make a profit. With margins on food being so tight, it naturally falls on the beverage side of the business to earn healthy returns.

In the wine industry, there are certain well known brands that restaurants know will sell off their wine list without any effort. These are your Jordan, Caymus, Rombauer, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, Opus One and Silver Oak type wines of the world.

There is no need for effort because wine consumers will order these wines on their own as frequently these are the only names on the list they recognize. Often their ego (either hubris or an irrational fear of looking helpless) keeps them from seeking the sommelier’s assistance so they retreat to the comfort of a known quantity.

But these “known quantities” are often the highest marked up wines on the entire list!

That hesitance to relinquish control and trust the sommelier to guide you out of the realm of the “the same ole, same ole” is not limited to just “regular wine drinkers”. It hits folks who “know wine” and have been around the industry. I mean come on! We don’t need help. We know how to order wine and what’s good!

And that is why restaurants make bank off of the “Ego Tax”.

Which is fine, I suppose, if you are living off an expense account and paying with someone else’s dime. But most of us in the real world aren’t expense account dandies so it’s pointless to be paying the “Ego Tax” when all we’ve got to do is trust the somm and have some fun.

The Somm Game in Action

When I play the Somm Game, I start by introducing myself as a wine geek and telling the sommelier that all I want to do this evening is “geek out” a bit. Sometimes in the conversation that follows I will mention my wine industry background but that is rarely brought up. My approach is to present myself as just a geek that trusts and respects the sommelier’s judgement and expertise.

I give them a budget and tell them that I’m open to anything–glass pours, half-bottles, full-bottles. I recommend going a little higher in your budget than you would usually give yourself for ordering a single bottle because the more flexibility you give the somms, the more fun you can have. Trust me, it will pay off dividends.

I share with them what food I’m ordering–again emphasizing my openness in going with whatever the sommelier thinks will work best whether it be glass pours for each course or half/full-bottles, etc.

Then I sit back and have fun.

This weekend I had the opportunity to play the Somm Game at two restaurants–Lago by Julian Serrano at the Bellagio and at Aureole by Charlie Palmer at Mandalay Bay. Both restaurants have tremendous wine programs overseen by Master Sommelier Jason L. Smith, Executive Director of Wine for MGM Resorts International, and Mandalay Bay Director of Wine Harley Carbery.

When playing the Somm Game, it helps to increase your odds by playing with a stack deck.

Lago

At Lago, we were served by head sommelier Jeffrey Bencus, an Advance Sommelier who is on the cusp of achieving his MS. Talking with him, we found out that he has separately passed his theory and tasting exams for the Master Sommelier certification–just not within the same testing cycle.

On my own, when out for a nice dinner I usually aim for a bottle in the $250-300 range so I gave Jeffrey a budget of $350 and laid out the perimeters above. I told him we were geeks and opened to pretty much anything.

The style of cuisine at Lago is small plates so we started off with short rib cannelloni and red wine risotto.

These were red wine heavy dishes but we were delighted when he brought out a half bottle of 2015 Jean-Philippe Fichet Meursault.

Granted, coming from the tremendous 2015 vintage this wine was already playing with a full house.

With plots in the enviable “second crus” of Les Chaumes de Narvaux (upslope from the Premier cru vineyards of Les Bouchères and Les Gouttes d’Or) and Le Limozin (flanked by 1er crus Les Genevrières and Les Charmes) as well as 65 to 75+ year old vine plantings in Les Clous and Les Criots, this village-level Meursault was delivering premier cru quality pleasure.

Textbook Meursault with subtle butteriness, hazelnuts and that liquid-rocks minerality that makes this place so special for Chardonnay. I don’t remember what the restaurant price was, but the Wine Searcher Average for the 2015 was $65. Well worth finding.

The following course was Italian sausage skewers with red pepper sauce and a filet with a Gorgonzola demi-glaze. Originally Jeffrey was thinking a classic 2012 Brunnello di Montalcino but decided to geek it up more for us with a 2012 Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi from the legendary Campanian producer. I was quite familiar with Mastroberardino and their flagship Taurasi but my initial instinct was that a 2012 would be far too young.

But, again, here is where a somm’s expertise and experience with their own wine list pays off.

With nothing more than a splash decant the Radici was absolutely singing with the savory floral and spicy undertones of Aglianico complimenting not only my steak but also my wife’s Italian sausage with its sweet roasted red bell pepper sauce.

Black olives and black fruit with a long savory finish. A masterful wine from Mastroberardino that was drinking surprisingly well for a young Taurasi.

The Wine Searcher Average for this wine is listed at $47 but that is skewed a little by some discount Hong Kong retailers. In the US, it is far more common to find it retailing for $55-60.

For dessert we had a creme brulee and citrus cannoli and boy did we hit the jackpot with the Somm Game!

My wife and I were flabbergasted when Jeffrey brought out a tiny 187ml split of 1993 Château Pajzos Tokaji Esszencia.

I don’t think this wine was even on the wine list!

While I’ve had Tokaji several times, this was my first experience trying an Esszencia because of how rare (and expensive) it is. Made from the free-run juice of dried botrytized grapes, residual sugars can go as high as 85% and take over 6 years to ferment because of how sweet and concentrated it is. Tokaji Esszencia is truly one of the wonders of the wine world.

This wine was the #3 ranked wine on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list in 1998 and was described as “a perfect wine” with 100 pts from Robert Parker.

And it was just….wow!

I think I finally found a wine that broke my mental 94 point barrier. It’s been over four days since I had this wine and I can still taste the amazing concentration of liquid figs, honey, cognac and lingering spice.

Folks….this is a WHITE wine!

Incredibly difficult to find retail due to its limited supply (only 165 cases made), the Wine Searcher Average for a 500ml of the 1993 Pajzos Esszencia is $698.

A stunning treat and life-long memory.

All together, the three wines were well around our $350 budget. As we were finishing up dinner while savoring that amazing Esszencia, I noticed the table next to us had ordered a bottle of 2006 Opus One which was $995 on the Lago’s restaurant list.

While I’m sure they enjoyed that bottle of Opus fine enough, I can’t help but think that we came out WAY ahead in our wine and food pairing experience by paying around a third of what they did.

Heck, all three of the wines we had which included one 375ml half bottle, one 750ml bottle and one 187ml split was less at restaurant mark-up than what one single bottle of 2006 Opus One averages at retail price.

That folks….is winning big with the Somm Game.

Aureole

The next night we visited Aureole at Mandalay Bay where we rolled the dice for the Somm Game with Kyran O’Dwyer, an Advance Sommelier since 2006.

While Kyran didn’t have an extra 187ml bottle of an uber-rare wine lying around, he had his own ace up his sleeve and delivered a remarkable and personalized experience that far exceeded our expectations.

We didn’t finish this bottle till just before dessert and it paired exquisitely with every dish we had.

Giving him the same $350 budget, the first roll came up sevens when he brought out a perfectly geeky Champagne–the Drappier Quattuor Blanc de Blancs featuring some of the rarest grapes in Champagne.

A blend of 25% Arbane, 25% Petit Meslier, 25% Blanc Vrai (Pinot blanc) and 25% Chardonnay to round it out, the wine was aged 3 years on the lees before being bottled with a dosage of 4 g/l. The Wine Searcher Average for it is $61 but most retailers in the US have it closer to the $120 release price noted by Wine Spectator. However it is incredibly difficult to find with most retailers (like K & L) getting less than a couple cases.

But oh is it worth the hunt!

This is a “unicorn Champagne” like the ones I’ve been on the prowl for since I finished reading Robert Walters’ Bursting Bubbles. High intensity aromatics that continually evolved in the glass with a mix of citrus lemon custard and orange blossoms with some creamy creme brulee action. Exceptionally well balanced between the creamy mousse, racy citrus notes and dry dosage, the long finish brought out intriguing salty mineral notes that lasted for several minutes after you swallowed.

For appetizers my wife got a black garlic Cesar salad while I had the foie gras du jour–which was seared foie gras with a balsamic berry reduction paired with a French toast concoction that had the chef’s homemade nutella filling. While we enjoyed the Champagne, he gave us each an additional 2-3 oz “taster pour” of the 2014 Braida Brachetto d’Acqui to go with the foie gras.

The wine was lively and fresh with ample acidity to balance the sweetness.

A seriously good sweet wine worth geeking out over.

The wine tasted like you were eating ripe strawberries picked straight from the bush. In a market flooded with Moscatos, Roscatos and Stella Rosa, sweet wines often get a bad rap as overly simple but tasting a wine like the Giacomo Bologna Braida Brachetto d’Acqui is a great reminder about how joyful and delicious “simple sweet wines” can be. At a retail average of $18 a bottle, it is also a great deal for folks wanting to trade out of the same ole, same ole for something new to try.

For dinner I had braised short rib ravioli with a smoked tomato cream sauce while my wife had one of the most delicious vegetarian lasagnas that we had ever tried. It must have had at least 20 layers of fresh pasta, butternut squash, sage, spinach and mascarpone. My ravioli was great but her lasagna was outstanding.

Of course, these dishes were quite different and not necessarily the easiest to pair with the same wine. Truthfully, on my own, I probably would have “wimped out” and took the easy route of ordering a village-level Burgundy with the thinking of acidity for my tomato cream sauce while some earthiness could play well with the lasagna without being too big or tannic. Not a perfect pairing but a serviceable one.

But Advance Sommeliers do not settle for serviceable.

One of the tell-tale signs of a good restaurant wine program is when the wine list has gems like this Portuguese Douro on it. Few people are savvy enough to recognize or order them but the sommeliers know what’s up.

Instead, Kyran surprised me with a 2012 Prats & Symington Post Scriptum de Chryseia from the Douro. I was already very familiar with the Symington family’s stable of Port houses like Cockburn, Dow, Graham, Warre and Quinta do Vesúvio but wasn’t aware of this particular Douro red wine label.

A blend of 53% Touriga Franca, 45% Touriga Nacional and 2% other Portuguese varieties, the wine was remarkably “St. Emilion-like” with a beautiful mix of blue flowers, dark fruit and savory baking spice notes on the nose. Far from being “too big” or “too tannic” for the vegetable lasagna, the wine was beautifully balance with juicy medium-plus acidity and velvety medium-plus tannins.

If this was a blind tasting and I pegged it as a St. Emilion, I would have been expecting it to be in the $45-55 range retail for a bottle. But here is where the savvy of a good sommelier comes into play because this absolute gem of a wine from a very underappreciated region is a total steal at around $26 a bottle retail.

The wine list price for this bottle was $67 which, compared to the usual 3x retail mark up common in the industry, was a great deal in its own right. Frankly, you would be hard-pressed to find a better bottle than this on most restaurant’s wine lists for less than $80.

We would have been more than happy with only this bottle for both our main courses.

But, again, Kyran when above and beyond as he brought my wife out a glass pour of the 2015 Domaine Laroche Vielle Voye Chablis to compliment her vegetarian lasagna. Sourced from 70+ year old vines, this village-level Chablis way over delivered and is another great value at $36 a bottle (and probably a $20-25 glass pour, at least).

The wine….they just kept coming!

Then for dessert my wife went with a blood orange creamsicle parfait while I ordered a maple brown butter creme brulee (my favorite dessert if you haven’t guess yet). Once again Kyran decided to individualize the pairing for us with my wife getting a glass of the 2008 Jackson Triggs Vidal Ice Wine from Niagara that was chock-full of orange blossoms and apricot notes while I got a 2011 Kracher Beerenauslese from Burgenland that had amazing lightness in the mouthfeel despite its rich concentration.

And coming…..
Like a hot slot machine.

With Wine Searcher averages of $93 and $61 respectively, my wife and I rarely buy full bottles of dessert wines because we never finish them. For us, it’s worth paying a little bit of a premium to enjoy them by the glass pour at a restaurant with a nice dessert. Yet, I rarely ever feel like I am paying a premium compared to the amount of pleasure I’m getting with the pairing.

With an end total of 2 bottles, 3 glasses and two taster pours over the course of a fabulous dinner with a personalize touch made this another jackpot win for the Somm Game. There is truly no way that I could have spent my money better that evening than just letting Kyran run the table with his fantastic pairings.

That is the beauty of the Somm Game.

Yes, it’s still gambling

And the house is going to get its share.

Of course, I could have likely bought (assuming I could even find them) bottles of the wines I had at each dinner for less than $350 on the retail market but that’s the same truth when comparing the cost of the food ingredients if you cooked the meal at home versus what you paid at a restaurant for a dish.

No one should approach the Somm Game or buying wine at restaurants with the perspective of beating retail prices. It’s never going to happen. These restaurants are businesses with overhead and staff that deserve to be paid living wages and benefits.

I’m not advocating the Somm Game as a way of “beating the house” though I do wholeheartedly endorse it as a way of getting the most out your money and having a kick-ass experience.

There is really not a dollar amount that you can put on your own personal pleasure or the joy of trying something new.

You “come out ahead” when you end up getting more than you expected with a tremendous evening of great wine, great food and great memories that happened just because you let the professionals do the very thing that they are really good at doing.

No, there is not guaranteed 100% success each time you play. Sometimes you may be at a restaurant that doesn’t have a serious wine program with trained sommeliers. Sure you can still roll the dice but, as with all forms of gambling, there is always a chance you will crap out.

I recommend checking out the wine list and asking questions of the staff to get a feel if this is the type of place that is worth playing the Somm Game at.

But in Las Vegas, with its high density of outstanding restaurants and sommeliers, I’ve found no surer bet.

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Wine Geek Notes 3/16/18 — Pinot Meunier, 2015 Bordeaux and Cali 2nd Wines

Photo by Igor Zemljič. Released on Wikimedia Commons under PD-user

Here is what I’m reading today in the world of wine.

Interesting Tweets and Weblinks

Pinot Meunier Goes Beyond the Blend in Champagne by Jameson Fink (@jamesonfink) for Wine Enthusiast (@WineEnthusiast). Brought to my dash via Frank Morgan (@DrinkWhatULike).

I absolutely ADORE Pinot Meunier so I was thrilled to see Fink give this unheralded grape of Champagne some much needed love. While Chardonnay and Pinot noir get all the attention, Pinot Meunier is often the backbone of some of the most powerful and evocative Champagnes made in the region. Echoing David Speer of Ambonnay Champagne bar (@AmbonnayBar) in Portland, Oregon, Fink notes that the flavors that Pinot Meunier brings to the table includes “… white flowers, herbs (in a good way), blueberries, spices, earth and meaty notes—[a] ‘fascinating mix of sweet, savory and spicy tones.'”

A few of my favorite Pinot Meunier-dominant Champagnes include Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve NV and Duval-Leroy NV Brut with the grape often playing equal billing with Pinot noir in the wines of Pol Roger and for Charles Heidsieck’s Brut Reserve. But what excites me the most about Fink’s article is the emergence of single varietal Pinot Meunier Champagnes with Fink’s providing a nifty shopping list of producers to seek out. Several of these growers (such as Jérôme Prévost and Laherte Frères) have been on my must-try list since I reviewed Robert Walters’ Bursting Bubbles and this just gives me more incentive to hunt them down.

Photo by PA. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Château Paloumey in Ludon-Médoc

Here We Go Again: Value Bordeaux 2015 by Neal Martin (@nealmartin) of Vinous (@VinousMedia).

The 2015 and 2016 vintages are going to be a smorgasbord of goodness for Bordeaux lovers. While, yes, there are going to be the outrageously priced top estates, there is also going to be an abundance of value. In this article, Martin list several top finds under $25 that are very intriguing. I’ve had Château Paloumey from the less than stellar 2011 vintage and was rather impressed so I would be very interested in trying the 2015 of this Haut-Medoc estate. Another wine that Martin highlights is the 2015 Eva from Château Le Pey that is 25% Petit Verdot!

All these wines look to be well worth exploring. Other sub $25 Bordeaux from the 2015 vintage that I’ve personally had and would also encourage Bordeaux lovers to explore include:

Ch. Lanessan (Haut-Medoc) Wine Searcher Ave $25
Ch. Chantegrive (Graves) Wine Searcher Ave $19
Ch. Vrai Canon Bouche (Canon-Fronsac) Wine Searcher Ave $25
Ch. de la Huste (Fronsac) Wine Searcher Ave $19
Ch. Ferran (Pessac-Leognan) Wine Searcher Ave $19

Berger on wine: Parallel brands allow room to grow by Dan Berger for The Press Democrat (@NorthBayNews)

The concept of Second Wines is well known for Bordeaux lovers. It allows an estate to be more selective in both the vineyard and winery, limiting their top cuvee to just the “best of the best”. The remaining juice is still very good but often doesn’t merit being premium priced so estates would create a second label to sell the juice. The benefit to the consumer is that they get the pedigree of the Grand Vin’s viticulture and winemaking teams but are only paying a fraction of the price of the top cuvee.

In California, the wineries are also very selective in limiting their top cuvee to just the “best of the best” but would instead sell off the declassified juice as anonymous bulk wine to other producers. California négociants like Courtney Benham often make off like bandits buying premium lots from top wineries and selling them under their own label.

But the consumers still don’t know where the juice came from which is why I’m encouraged by Berger’s article that more wineries are starting to create their own second labels to bottle their declassified lots. I’m particularly intrigued by Cathy Corison’s Corazón and Helio labels and Ramey’s Sidebar wines.

Hide yo kids, Hide yo wife

I really wish this was an April Fool’s Day joke but I fret that it is not. So consider this a public service warning because soon your local grocery stores and gas stations are going to be inundated with displays and marketing for Apothic Brew— a “cold brew-wine” hybrid created by Gallo.

While I was able to find some redeeming factors in the whiskey barrel aged wine trend that Apothic helped popularize, I really have no clue what Gallo’s marketing team is thinking with this. But, it’s Gallo and they didn’t become a billion dollar company by coming up with stupid ideas so who knows?

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60 Second Wine Review — Pierre Gerbais L’Originale

Some quick thoughts on the Pierre Gerbais L’Originale Extra Brut Champagne that was highlighted in my review of Robert Walters’ Bursting Bubbles.

The Geekery

In Peter Leim’s Champagne, he notes that Aurélien Gerbais is an 8th generation grower in the Côte des Bar and the 4th generation to make wine in this region of the Aube.

The estate of Pierre Gerbais is certainly unique in Champagne. Pinot blanc accounts for nearly a quarter of the domaine’s 43 acres of vines. This includes some old vine plantings in the historic “Les Proies” vineyard that date back to 1904.

In the 20th century, many Champagne estates uprooted their Pinot blanc in favor of the more fashionable Chardonnay and Pinot noir. However, the Gerbais’ value Pinot blanc ability to handle humidity and frost which can often hit their estate in Celles-sur-Ource.

After Aurélien’s grandmother became sick from pesticide residue on the vines after working in the vineyard, the estate converted to organic viticulture in the 1990s.

The L’Originale is 100% Pinot blanc sourced from old vine plantings. It spends 36 months aging on the lees prior to being disgorged with a dosage of 3 g/l. Around 3000 bottles are made every year.

The Wine

Photo by Dirk Ingo Franke. Posted on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.

The subtle smokiness of the apple adds savory complexity to this Champagne

High intensity nose.  The huge apple notes are a mix of both fresh cut apples and grilled apple slices–like something topping a wood-fired white pizza. Some spiced pear as well.

On the palate the apple notes carry through. The notes are amplified with a sense creaminess and weight in the mouthfeel. The subtle smokiness from the nose exhibited by the grilled slices linger and compliments the toasty-leesy flavors of the Champagne. The finish is long with a salty minerality.

The Verdict

There is a tremendous amount of complexity and character in this Champagne. It is well worth its $70-80 price tag and outshines many wines in the $100+ range.

Being a small production grower, this Pierre Gerbais L’Originale won’t be easy to find but if you can get your hands on it, buy multiple bottles.

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Thought Bubbles – How to Geek Out About Champagne

By Joseph Faverot - [1], Public Domain, on Wikimedia CommonsLast week I got into a bit of a tizzy over some ridiculous things posted by a so-called “Wine Prophet” on how to become a “Champagne Master”. See Champagne Masters and their Bull Shit for all the fun and giggles.

But despite the many failings of Jonathan Cristaldi’s post, he did dish out one very solid piece of advice–to learn more about Champagne, you have to start by popping bottles. I want to expand on that and offer a few tidbits for budding Champagne geeks.

I’m not going to promise to make you a “Champagne Master”–because that is a lifelong pursuit–but I will promise not to steer you towards looking like a buffoon regurgitating nonsense about Marie Antoinette pimping for a Champagne house that wasn’t founded till 40+ years after her death.

Deal? Alright, let’s have some fun.

1.) Start Popping Bottles!

Pretty much you can stop reading now. I’m serious. Just go try something, anything. Better still if it is something you haven’t had or even heard of before. Pop it open and see what you think.

They say it takes 10,000 hours to master anything so take that as a personal challenge to start getting your drink on. Well actually that 10,000 hour thing has been debunked but mama didn’t raise a quitter.

Though seriously, if you want to make your tasting exploration more fruitful, here are some tips.

Make friends with your local wine shop folks

On Wikimedia Commons under PD-US from United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsca.05590.

Online retailers can be helpful as well but sometimes it’s good to have a face to put with a bottle.


They pretty much live and breath the wines they stock. They know their inventory and you can usually tell when they have a passion to share their love of wine with people. Admittedly not every shop is great but go in, look around, ask questions and see if you find a good fit. Finding a great local wine shop with folks whose opinions you trust is worth its weight in gold for a wine lover. Once you’ve found that, the door is open for you to be pointed towards a lot of fantastic bottles that will only enrich your explorations.

Learn the differences between négociant houses, grower producers and co-operatives

In Champagne, you can often find on the label a long number with abbreviations that denote what type of producer made the Champagne.

NMnégociant manipulant, who buy fruit (or even pre-made wine) from growers. These are the big houses (like the LVMH stable of Moët & Chandon & Veuve Clicquot) that make nearly 80% of all Champagne produced. These Champagnes aren’t bad at all. Most are rather outstanding.

But the key to know is that while there are around 19,000 growers, the Champagne market is thoroughly dominated by several large négociant houses. Chances are if you go into a store (especially a grocery store or Costco), these wines are likely going to be your only options. You should certainly try these wines but you may have to do some leg work to find the whole wide world of Champagne that exists beyond the big names. This is a big reason why making friends at the local wine shop (who often stock smaller producers) is a great idea.

RMrécoltant manipulant, who make wine only from their own estate fruit. These are your “Grower Champagnes” and while being a small producer, alone, is not a guarantee of quality, exploring the wines of small producers is like checking out the small mom & pop restaurants in a city instead of only eating at the big chain restaurants. You can find a lot of gems among the little guys who toil in obscurity.

CMcoopérative-manipulant, who pool together the resources of a group of growers under one brand. This is kind of the middle ground between true Grower Champagne and the big négociant houses. Some of these co-ops are small and based around a single village (like Champagne Mailly) while others cover the entire region (like Nicolas Feuillatte which includes 5000 growers and is one of the top producers in Champagne). Some of these are easier to find than others but they are still worth exploring so you can learn about the larger picture of Champagne.

An example of a négociant (NM on left) and grower (RM on right) label.

Pay attention to sweetness and house style

While “Brut” is going to be the most common sweetness level you see, no two bottles of Brut are going to be the same. That is because a bottle of Brut can have anywhere from Zero to up to 12 grams per liter of sugar. 12 grams is essentially 3 cubes of sugar. Then, almost counter-intuitively, wines labeled as “Extra Dry” are going to actually be a little sweeter than Brut. (It’s a long story)

By  Kici, Released on Wikimedia Commons under public domain

Though to be fair, if they served Champagne at McDonald’s, I would probably eat there more often. It is one of the best pairings with french fries.


This is important to note because while Champagne houses often won’t tell you the dosage (amount of sugar added at bottling) of their Bruts, with enough tasting you can start to discern the general “house style” of a brand.

For instance, the notable Veuve Clicquot “Yellow Label” is tailor-made for the sweet tooth US market and will always be on the “sweeter side of Brut” (9-12 g/l). While houses such as Billecart-Salmon usually go for a drier style with dosages of 7 g/l or less. If you have these two wines side by side (and particularly focus on the tip of your tongue) you will notice the difference in sweetness and house style.

The idea of house style (which is best exhibited in each brand’s non-vintage cuvee) is for the consumer to get a consistent experience with every bottle. It’s the same goal of McDonald’s to have every Big Mac taste the same no matter where you are or when you buy it. All the major négociant houses have a trade mark style and some will be more to your taste than others.

Explore the Grand Crus and vineyard designated bottles

While Champagne is not quite like Burgundy with the focus on terroir and the idea that different plots of land exhibit different personalities, the region is still home to an abundance of unique vineyards and terroir. These are best explored through bottles made from single designated vineyards but these can be expensive and exceedingly hard to find.

Quite a bit easier to find (especially at a good wine shop) are Grand Cru Champagnes that are made exclusively from the fruit of 17 particular villages. There are over 300 villages in Champagne but over time the vineyards of these 17 villages showed themselves to produce the highest quality and most consistent wines. All the top prestige cuvees in Champagne prominently feature fruit from these villages.

To be labeled as a Grand Cru, the Champagne has to be 100% sourced only from a Grand Cru village. It could be a blend of multiple Grand Cru villages but if a single village is featured on the front of the label (like Bouzy, Mailly, Avize, Ambonnay, etc) then it has to be exclusively from that village. Since the production of the Grand Cru villages represent less than 10% of all the grapes grown in Champagne, you would expect them to be fairly pricey. That’s not the case. Many small growers have inherited their Grand Cru vineyards through generations of their families and are able to produce 100% Grand Cru Champagnes for the same price as your basic Champagnes from the big négociant house.

They may be a little harder to find than the big négociant houses, but Grand Cru Champagnes from producers like Pierre Peters, Franck Bonville, Pierre Moncuitt, Petrois-Moriset, Pierre Paillard and more can be had in the $40-60 range.

While not as terroir-driven as single vineyard wines, tasting some of the single-village Grand Crus offers a tremendous opportunity to learn about the unique personality of different villages in Champagne and is well worth the time of any Champagne lover to explore.

2.) Great Reading Resources

Truthfully, you can just follow the advice of the first step and live a life of happy, bubbly contentment. You don’t need book knowledge to enjoy Champagne–just an explorer’s soul and willingness to try something new. But when you really want to geek out and expand your knowledge, it is helpful to have solid and reliable resources. There are tons of great wine books dealing with Champagne and sparkling wine but a few of my favorites include:

A few favs

Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan’s Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine — The benchmark reference book written by the foremost authorities on all things that sparkle.

Peter Leim’s Champagne [Boxed Book & Map Set] — This set ramps up the geek factor and dives deeper into the nitty gritty details of Champagne. The companion maps that shows vineyards and crus of the region are enough to make any Bubble Head squeal.

David White’s But First, Champagne — A very fresh and modern approach to learning about Champagne. It essentially takes the Christie’s Encyclopedia and Peter Liem’s opus and boils it down to a more digestible compendium.

Robert Walter’s Bursting Bubbles — Thought provoking and a different perspective. You can read my full review of the book here.

Ed McCarthy’s Champagne for Dummies — A little outdated but a quick read that covers the basics very well. I suspect that if the “Wine Prophet” read this book, he wouldn’t have had as much difficulties understanding the differences between vintage and non-vintage Champagnes.

Don & Petie Kladstrup’s Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times — One of my favorite books, period. Brilliantly written work of historical non-fiction about the people who made Champagne, Champagne. If you ever wondered what was the big deal about people calling everything that has bubbles “champagne”, read this book about what the Champenois endured throughout their history and you will have newfound respect for what the word “Champagne” means.

3.) Next Level Geekery

As I said in the intro, the pursuit of Champagne Mastery is a lifelong passion and you never stop learning. Beyond the advice given above, some avenues for even more in-depth exploration includes:

The Wine Scholar Guild Champagne Master-Level course — I’ve taken the WSG Bordeaux and Burgundy Master courses and can’t rave enough about the online programs they have. Taught by Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine, the level of instruction and attention to detail is top notch. They also offer immersion tours to the region.

Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages — This Master of Wine is one of the most reliable sources for information and tasting notes on all kinds of wine but particularly for Champagne.

Allen Meadow’s Burghound — While Burgundy is Meadow’s particular focus, he does devote a lot of time reviewing and commenting on Champagne and, like Robinson, is a very reliable source. But the caveat for all critics is to view them as tools, rather than pontiffs.

Visit Wineries

By Webmasterlescordeliers - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, on Wikimedia Commons

If you get a chance to riddle, it will be really fun for the first couple of minutes. Then you realize how hard of a job it is.


Even if you can’t visit Champagne itself, chances are you are probably near some producer, somewhere who is making sparkling wine.

All throughout the world there are producers making bubbly from African wineries in Morocco, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa; Asian wineries in China and India; to more well known sparkling wine producing countries in Australia, Argentina, Chile, United Kingdom and Eastern Europe.

In the United States, there is not only a vibrant sparkling wine industry in the traditional west coast regions of California, Oregon (Beaver State Bubbly) and Washington State but also New Mexico, Missouri, New York, Virginia, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Georgia, Colorado and more.

While they may not be making wine in the “traditional method”, there is still benefit to visiting and tasting at these estates. Especially at small wineries where the person pouring could be the owner or winemaker themselves, these experiences can give you an opportunity to peak behind the curtain and see the work that happens in the vineyard and winery. As wonderful of a resource that books and classes can provide, there really is no substitute for first hand experience.

So have fun and keep exploring!

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Book Reviews — Rosé Wine

A few thoughts on Rosé Wine: The Guide to Drinking Pink by Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan.

Overview

Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan earned her Master of Wine in 2008, becoming the 4th woman in the United States to achieve such a distinction. In the introduction of Rosé Wine, she describes the difficulties in finding resources on rosé while she was studying for her MW and with rosé growing in popularity (particularly in the US), this book fills a niche.

The book is broken into 3 sections with 10 chapters. The first part, “Getting Started”, covers the basics of making and tasting rosé and concludes with Chapter 3’s presentation of Simonetti-Bryan’s 10 question Rosé Quiz. This quiz, which features questions asking about coffee habits and whether you put lemon juice on your green beans, aims to identify what style of rosé you may enjoy based on your tolerance of bitter, sweet and sour components as well as alcohol heat.

The next section of the book goes into the world of rosés with chapters 4 through 7 detailing the four broad categories of rosés–Blush wines which emphasize sweetness, Crisp wines which emphasize acidity, Fruity wines which emphasize fruit and Rich wines which emphasize body, alcohol and deep color. In each section, Simonetti-Bryan gives specific wine recommendations that exhibit these particular styles and food pairing options for them.

The last section, covering chapters 8 through 10, is titled “Resources” and includes more in-depth food pairing guidelines as well as a pronunciation guide and checklist for the wines featured throughout the book.

Some Things I Learned

I must confess that when I picked up this tiny (6.5 x 8 inch) book, I wasn’t expecting much. I mean, come on, it’s about rosé! Outside of knowing which grapes grow in which wine region that makes rosé, how much is there to really know about it?

But y’all….

From Wikimedia Commons, taken by self and uploaded as Agne27

And truthfully, it’s often easier to find rose Cava in the US than Spanish rosados.

I got schooled by the Jedi Wine Master.

The first eye-opener for me came on page 2 when I learned that after France, Spain is the second leading producer of rosé. Spain?!? I know they make a significant quantity of wine but I would have surely pegged the US as #2 for rosé production–especially since we drink so much of it. But then, my US-centric experience is at play when I can find dozens of American rosé examples but only a handful of Spanish rosados on restaurant wine lists and store shelves–a Muga here, a Marques De Caceres there.

In Chapter 1 on “Making Rosé”, I geeked out on the varietal characteristics of the grapes. As someone who is toiling away on the WSET Diploma level, it’s helpful to know little blind tasting hints such as looking for herbal notes like oregano in Sangiovese, the raspberry flavors in Syrah rosés and how Mencía can come across like Malbec but with more blackberry, violet and spicy flavors.

I also never realized how much co-fermentation of white and red grapes was done in rosé winemaking. Typically when you think of co-ferments, you think of notable examples like Syrah and Viognier in Côte-Rôtie and field blends. But littered throughout Rosé Wine are examples that Simonetti-Bryan highlights from regions like Vinho Verde (10 different red and white grapes can be used), Veneto (the Prosecco grape Glera with red grape varieties), Rioja (Viura and Tempranillo) and Tavel.

I was also surprised to learn that Pink Moscato is usually made with blending red wine to white Muscat blanc wine. I always thought it was made from one of the countless red skin variations of the Muscat grape.

In Chapter 2 on “Tasting Rosé”, Simonetti-Bryan’s explanation of picking up flavors via your retronasal cavity is one of the best I’ve ever came across. She asks you to think about how you can taste food that you ate hours ago when you burp and that is bloody brilliant. Gross, but brilliant and I’m totally going to steal that the next time I have to explain retronasal olfaction.

Wines I Want to Try Because of This Book

Here Simonetti-Bryan gives a smorgasbord of options with each rosé style getting 15 to 22 recommendations of specific wines to try. I found a couple dozen that excited me but I’m going to limit this list to the top 5 that interested me the most.

Domaines Ott Clos Mireille Côtes de Provence Rosé (Crisp style) – I can’t imagine myself paying nearly $50 for a rosé but Simonetti-Bryan’s description of this wine having a long slow fermentation, spending 8 to 12 months in vats, makes this very fascinating.

Domaine la Rabiotte Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence (Crisp) – At around $13, this is more in my wheel house for rosé and the description of this wine’s minerally acidity cutting through the fat of pulled pork had my mouth watering just thinking about it.

By jean-louis Zimmermann - Flickr: vin

Very intrigued to explore the rosés of Tavel more

Conundrum Rosé (Crisp) – Made by the Wagner family of Caymus fame, this rosé is made from the uber geeky Valdigué grape. That right off the bat had me interested but then Simonetti-Bryan notes that the grapes are apparently “rolled” for 3 hours before pressing. Rolled? I’ve never heard of that before. By hand? By machine? In a tumbler barrel? I’m intensely curious.

Domaine Clarence Dillon Clarendelle Rosé (Fruity style) – Made by the Dillon family of Ch. Haut-Brion fame, a sub $20 Bordeaux rosé made from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc sounds delicious. I’d also like to see how the time spent aging on the lees impacts mouthfeel.

Château de Ségriès Tavel (Rich style) – Located across the Rhône river from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Tavel AOC specializes in producing deeply colored and fuller bodied rosés. I also liked Simonetti-Bryan’s tidbit that this AOC only produces around 500,000 cases a year–which she compared to Barefoot’s annual production of 17 million cases. With all the food pairing tips she gives for matching rich, robust rosés with heartier fare, I think I’ve found a way to enjoy rosés in winter.

New Reading Recommendations I Got From This Book

Unfortunately Simonetti-Bryan didn’t include an appendix of notes or reference section in Rosé Wine so I didn’t get as many recommendations for future reading materials as I have from other wine books (like Bursting Bubbles). She does name drop a few potentials in the book–including two in the Introduction as she recounts a sommelier at a Michelin-starred restaurant humorously telling a Master of Wine that “rosés are not wine”.

Benjamin Lewin’s Wine Myths & Reality (I wonder if he tackles the “rosés are not wine” myth here)

Benjamin Lewin’s Wines of France

But I was so impressed with Rosé Wine that, when I was finished, I went to Amazon to look up other books from Simonetti-Bryan that I could add to my reading list.

The One Minute Wine Master: Discover 10 Wines You’ll Like in 60 Seconds or Less

With Master Chef Ken Arnone, Pairing with the Masters: A Definitive Guide to Food and Wine

Final Thoughts

As I noted above, I wasn’t expecting much from this book–a quick read and maybe a takeaway or two–but I ended up burning through a highlighter. The fact that Simonetti-Bryan could jam so many usefully nuggets of info, and present it so unassumingly, is a huge testament to her skill as a teacher. Throughout reading Rosé Wine, I found myself continually surprised and presented with new ways of thinking about something.

While I initially eye-rolled at the Rosé Quiz and usually chafe at such over-simplification of people’s tastes (like I hate coffee and spicy food but love bitter dark chocolate and spicy, tannic, full-bodied reds), I was thoroughly impressed with her explanation of her methods and will have to admit that she nailed me as a Crisp rosé girl and my wife as Fruity rosé fan. While on the surface it seemed overly simple, the thinking and methodology behind it was solid.

I can see the full-bodied weight of this Counoise rosé from Washington pairing well with heavier fare.

I was also impressed with how Rosé Wine encouraged me to rethink my food pairing approach with rosés. I’m so nearsighted about matching weight to weight (light bodied rosé with lighter fare) that it was surprising for me to see Simonetti-Bryan’s recommendations of lamb with a Merlot and Malbec rosé from New Zealand, rich octopus with a Tuscan rosato and beef brisket with a Cabernet Franc rosé from Israel. None of those pairings would have been my first instinct for those dishes or wines but after reading Rosé Wine, I see how they make sense.

And I honestly can’t wait to try them.

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Beaver State Bubbly

I’m a bit of a bubble fiend. I love drinking sparkling wine. I love talking about it.

Easily at least half of the wine reviews I post here are about bubbles and when I get new sparkling related wine books like Bursting Bubbles, I eagerly devour them.

Living in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve watched with excitement the growth of the Oregon sparkling wine industry that Forbes.com contributor Joseph V. Micallef highlighted in a recent post.

The founding father of Oregon Bubbles is Rollin Soles who started Argyle Winery in Dundee in 1987. His venture had a lot of all-star firepower backing it with Australian winemaking legend Brian Croser (the 2004 Decanter Man of the Year) and Christian Bizot, then owner of the Champagne House Bollinger.

In 2001, Argyle became part of Lion Nathan corporation with their US branch spinning off in 2012 to become Distinguished Vineyards. Now Argyle is part of a portfolio of brands that includes MacRostie, Wither Hills and The Counselor. In 2013, Soles stepped away from the winery to focus on his brand ROCO that he founded with his wife, Corby Stonebraker-Soles.

While I’ve enjoyed Argyle since Soles left, I must confess that I haven’t been as wowed by the winery’s offerings in recent years. Part of it could be the increase in competition as wine shops have been bringing in more sub $25 Crémants from Alsace, Burgundy and the Loire that way over deliver on value. While years ago, Argyle’s basic brut at $20 stood out from the pack, now it is just middle of the road with even sparkling wines from New Mexico like Gruet and Jacqueline Leonne delivering delicious value in the under $15 category. Still, the 1998 Argyle Extended Triage remains one of my all time favorite wines.

But times change and winemakers move on, which is why I was very excited to try Soles’ new ‘RMS’ sparkling wine project at The Herbfarm’s holiday dinner series “The Holly & The Ivy”. While it didn’t reach the level of that 98 Extended Triage, the 2014 RMS Brut did remind me of all the things I missed about Argyle.

Not a bad way to start off a 9 course meal.


Around 66% Pinot noir with the remainder Chardonnay, the wine had high intensity aromatics of spiced pear wrapped in a toasty pastry crust. Those notes carried through to a creamy but powerful mouthfeel not that dissimilar to Charles Heidsieck. It also reminded me of Pol Roger where the weighty flavors are balanced by fresh citrus notes and racy minerality that give lift to the wine. An incredibly well-made sparkler that would probably continue to age even in the bottle under cork. It is certainly well worth the $65 winery price.

What Makes Oregon Bubbles Special?

In his Forbes post, Micallef quotes Tony Soter on how the “sweet spot” of Oregon’s cool-but-not-too-cool climate gives its an advantage over both warmer California and cooler Champagne.

“[In Oregon you have] … a generosity of fruit that is expressive of the grape varieties (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) reaching a high level of maturity while still maintaining an admirable level of acidity, finesse and elegance critical to sparkling wine. [While] … in California, the weather is too warm, forcing a premature picking to minimize excessive alcohol at the expense of the nuance and delicacy of fully developed grapes.” — Tony Soter, as quoted on Forbes.com January 19th, 2018

Far from being an “Oregon-homer”, Soter’s opinion on the differences between Oregon and California’s terroir is backed by his 30 plus years of experience working at some of the best names in California wine like Chappellet, Araujo, Shafer, Spottswoode and Dalle Valle.

The stats on Oregon’s favorable “goldilocks position” also bares out according to Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s Wine Atlas. While Champagne sits along the 49th parallel and averages a daily growing season temperature of 58.4°F, Napa Valley (home of Schramsberg, Domaine Chandon, Mumm Napa, etc) sits on the 38th parallel averaging growing season temperatures of 66.8°F. The Willamette Valley is nestled right in the middle of that on the 45th parallel with average growing season temps of 60.6°F.

Photo by Hahn Family Wines. Released on Wikimedia Commons via Flickr under CC BY 2.0

In addition to losing acidity, if you wait too long to harvest your grapes in warm climates you risk “baking out” the more delicate and complex flavors. This produces over ripe and dried fruit notes that the French call ‘sur maturité’. For many California sparkling wine producers, its a Catch-22.

Harvests in California for sparkling wine regularly taking place in early August while in Oregon it doesn’t start till September. In Champagne, which wine authors like Robert Walters in Bursting Bubbles claim often harvest too early and too unripe, harvest typically begins late August and early September. Many high quality grower producers in Champagne harvest later into September.

The timing of harvest is key because you want ample acidity for sparkling wine production which you can risk losing if the grapes hang too long on the vine. But at the same time unripe grapes can give bland and uninteresting flavors. Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan note in their Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine that having ripe grapes is absolutely essential for high quality sparkling wine.

Photo by Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives. Released on Wikimedia Commons under Oregon Historical County Records Guide public use

In the Willamette Valley, daytime highs in July in the low 80s (°F) can drop to the low 50s (°F) at night.

Like Washington State, Oregon also benefits from having drastic diurnal temperature variations during the growing season where temperatures can drop at night 30-40 degrees from day time highs, letting the vine literally “chill out” and retain fresh acidity.

This extends the growing season, allowing the grapes to hang longer on the vine, developing riper flavors while still maintaining that vital acidity.

Oregon Sparkling Wine Producers to Seek Out

Micallef notes that there is around 40 producers making sparkling wine in Oregon. While most of the production is small and limited to sales at the winery’s tasting room or wine club, there are some producers with ambitious aims.

One that is mentioned in the Forbes article is Radiant Sparkling Wine Company that was founded in McMinnville by Andrew Davis, a protege of Rollin Soles. After 8 years at Argyle, Davis founded his company to serve essentially as a mobile méthode champenoise facility, traveling to wineries with his sparkling wine equipment and technical know-how to help winemakers turn their base wines into bubbles.

Among the wineries that Davis has worked with includes Adelsheim, Anne Amie, Brooks, Ponzi, Raptor Ridge, Sokol Blosser, Stoller, Trisaetum and Willamette Valley Vineyards. In 2017, Davis helped create over 20,000 cases of Oregon sparkling wine to add to the 25,000 cases that Argyle produces yearly.

The Stoller rose sparkler more than held its own in a line-up of impressive bubbles.

One of these wines that I’ve recently had the opportunity to try was the Stoller 2014 Legacy LaRue’s Brut Rosé. The 25% Chardonnay and 75% Pinot noir base saw 10 months aging in neutral French oak before bottling and secondary fermentation. The wine spent 2 years on the lees prior to disgorgement with around 275 cases produced.

The LaRue rosé had a beautiful medium plus intensity nose of fresh cherry and strawberries. But what most intrigued me was the tinge of citrus blood orange that framed the red fruit notes. On the palate, the wine added another depth of flavor with some spicy and mineral notes.

I had this wine only about a couple weeks after I had the Louis Roederer 2011 Brut Rosé that I described in my post Cristal Clarity. We had another bottle of the Roederer rose opened with the Stoller and it was quite impressive how the Stoller showed in comparison. While it was more on the delicate and minerally side versus the fruitier Roederer, the Stoller clearly won out with much more vivid aromatics and longer finish that didn’t fade as fast as the Roederer. Considering that the Stoller LaRue is $65 while the Roederer is around $70 and you have some substantial value.

For a relatively young sparkling wine industry that just reached 30 years, the future looks exciting for wine geeks wanting to explore Oregon bubbles.

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Book Reviews – Bursting Bubbles

A few thoughts on Bursting Bubbles: A Secret History of Champagne and the Rise of the Great Growers by Robert Walters.

Overview

Robert Walters is an Australia wine merchant and importer who over the years became bored and jaded with the Champagnes produced by the large négociant houses. A chance tasting of Larmandier-Bernier’s Terre de Vertus reignited his passion for the wines of the region. This book recounts his trek throug Champagne visiting several grower producers like Anselme Selosse, Francis Egly, Pascal Agrapart, Jérôme Prévost and Emmanuel Lassaigne.

Throughout the book, Walters gets his vino-mythbuster on and debunks 10 common myths relating to Champagne such as the fact that Dom Perignon didn’t invent Champagne (he actually spent his entire career trying to get rid of the bubbles), placing a spoon in a Champagne bottle does not help retain the bubbles, smaller bubbles are not a sign of higher quality and more.

I didn’t always agree with some of his extrapolations such as when Walters tries to dispel the myth that blending Champagne makes “a sum better than its parts” (Myth VI). I understand his point that blending wines made from vineyards scattered across a large region negates any chance of terroir showing through. However, I do think something should be said for the skill of the winemaker in using a palette with many different colors of paint to create an evocative picture. While you can argue that the large négociant houses are sourcing from too vast of an area, I think few would argue that producers in Bordeaux are not showing terroir in their blends.

Wine or Sparkling Wine?
Photo by Fab5669. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Vineyards in the Grand Cru village of Mailly.

The overriding theme of the book is that Champagne should be considered a wine first and a sparkling wine second. Walters contends that many in the wine industry give Champagne a free pass and do not judge it critically on the same standards that we judge other great wine regions.

In contrast to the work of the small “great growers” he highlights, many producers in Champagne practice viticulture and winemaking practices that would be considered anathema in fine wine estates across the globe–such as the extensive use of chemicals, excessively high yields, harvesting unripe grapes and mass adulteration in the winery.

Walters makes a lot of opinionated arguments and critical points that will certainly chafe some wine lovers the wrong way. But they do give you reasons to think.

Some Things I Learned

The journey through many of the smaller villages of Champagne and their different terroirs was very fascinating. While it wasn’t an academic exploration (like the Champagne section in The Wine Atlas), it was still interesting. The chapters (beginning with Part XVI) in the Aube (Côte des Bar) were my favorite. This region is considered the backwoods cousin of Champagne and is often ignored in favor of the more prestigious regions of Côte des Blancs, Montagne de Reims and Vallée de la Marne yet it may actually end up having the best terroir in all of Champagne. It certainly seems to be a hotbed for dedicated growers with a chip on their shoulders that are raising the bar on what quality Champagne is.

Trash In the Vineyard?
By 808 Mālama pono - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, on Wikimedia Commons

This doesn’t really jive with the luxury image of Champagne.

The most horrifying idea that Bursting Bubbles introduced me to was the concept of “boues de ville“, the (thankfully now discontinued) practice of literally using city garbage to fertilize the vineyards of Champagne (Part VI). The thought of broken glass, batteries, plastic milk jugs and soda cans littering the vineyards of some of the most prestigious wines in the world made my jaw dropped and rushed me to Google where….yeah, this apparently happened from the 1960s till it was outlawed in 1998.

Getting geeky, I loved reading about Selosse’s “perpetual blend” inspired by the solera system of Sherry (Part X). For several of his Champagnes, Selosse keeps them in casks that he “tops up” with the new harvest every year while only bottling a small portion. So for example, the blend for his Champagne Substance started in 1986. This means that his recent release that was disgorged 05/2016 theoretically had wines from 19 vintages.

Walters’ cryptic snarkiness about a négociant running a tourist trap on the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay (which he wouldn’t name) had me playing detective to find out the identity of this mysterious Champagne house that supposedly made wines that taste like “battery acid plus sugar” (Part V).

Wines I Want to Try Because of This Book

One of the more enjoyable sections of Bursting Bubbles was when Walters dispelled the myth that Champagne is made from only 3 grapes (Myth V). I knew that there were other grapes permitted beyond Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier but finding Champagnes that actually featured these obscure grapes was like trying to find a unicorn at the Kentucky Derby. But throughout the book Walters name drops several of these unicorns that I’m hunting for.

I had this Pierre Gerbais at a Champagne tasting featuring over 20 bottles and this was my runaway WOTN. It makes me eagerly want to find more Pinot blanc Champagnes.

Pascal Agrapart ‘Complantee’ – from the Grand Cru village of Avize, this wine has the 3 traditional grapes as well as Arbanne, Pinot blanc and Petit Meslier.

Aurelian Laherte ‘Les 7’ – This wine gets even geekier with adding Fromenteau (probably Pinot gris) to the 6 grapes used in the Agrapart.

Cedric Bouchard ‘La Boloree’ – 100% Pinot blanc from 50+ year old vines.

Vouette et Sorbee ‘Texture’ – 100% Pinot blanc with zero dosage.

Aubry ‘Le Nombre d’Or’ – a blend of six grape varieties with 3 g/l dosage.

Pierre Gerbais L’Originale – 100% Pinot blanc from vines planted in 1904. (SCORE! After getting this book and making this list, I had a chance to try this wine courtesy of a friend. You can read my 60 Second Review of it here.)

New Reading Recommendations I Got From This Book

One of my favorite things to do with books is to scour their references and notes section in the back to find new reading materials. Sometimes the author will make a direct recommendation in the book, as Walters did (in ‘Disclaimers’) for people looking for Champagne producer guides. The new additions that Bursting Bubbles added to my “To Read” list are:

Peter Liem’s Champagne [Boxed Book & Map Set]: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region
Michael Edwards’ The Finest Wines of Champagne: A Guide to the Best Cuvées, Houses, and Growers
Tyson Stelzer’s The Champagne Guide 2018-2019: The Definitive Guide to Champagne
Becky Sue Epstein’s Champagne: A Global History
Thomas Brennan’s Burgundy to Champagne: The Wine Trade in Early Modern France
Kolleen M. Guy’s When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity
Michel Bettane & Thierry Desseauve The World’s Greatest Wines
Andrew Jefford’s The New France: A Complete Guide to Contemporary French Wine
Gérard Liger-Belair’s Uncorked: The Science of Champagne

Final Thoughts

Regular readers know that I have a strong affinity for wines made by small, family-owned wineries. In my recent review of some LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) Champagnes, I started it with the quote “You buy the big houses for the name, you buy the growers for the wine” , so I went into reading this book expecting to have a lot of sympathy with Robert Walters’ view.

But I found myself disagreeing with him more often than I agreed.

Worth Pondering Though

I don’t agree with his view that the use of dosage distorts the essence of “true Champagne” and that “toasty, biscuity” flavors are superficial, cosmetic notes and are not marks of “great Champagnes”. (Part VII).

I do agree that great Champagne should go with food.
This 2002 Lanson Noble Cuvee Blanc de Blancs spent 14 years aging on the lees and was bloody fantastic with Portuguese Pastéis de Bacalhau (fried salted cod).

I don’t agree that the bubbles in Champagne “get in the way” of appreciating the true quality of Champagne. That came from a quote of grower Cédric Bouchard (Part XX) and while, in the Epilogue, Walters says that he doesn’t agree with Bouchard that bubbles get in the way of terroir, he still highlights Bouchard point to say that, in his opinion, a “great Champagne must be a great wine first, and a great Champagne second.” This statement follows an entire book where he advocates serving Champagne at warmer temperatures, in large wine glasses and even decanted, while touting the positive benefits of minimizing the bubbles in Champagne.

In debunking the myth that flutes are the proper vessels for Champagne (something advocated by folks like Wine Enthusiast’s Jameson Fink), Walters says:

If you have a real wine in your glass, the kind of wine that I am advocating for in this book, it deserves a real wine glass that will showcase the quality that is on offer. — Robert Walters (Myth VIII)

 

 

 

What Makes Great Champagne?

In Walters’ view, great Champagnes are ones that can be served as still wines even after they’ve lost their bubbles. While I will confess that I’m curious enough to experiment more with intentionally decanting and degassing Champagnes, I can vividly recall numerous bottles of gorgeous Champagnes that I’ve enjoyed that tasted horrible warm or the day after when the bubbles were gone. The fact that those wines did not taste good as still wines is not reason enough for me to dismiss them as “not great Champagnes”.

While I agree with Walters’ main argument that we should judge Champagne and Champagne producers on par with how we judge other great wines in the world, I do not think it is required to shelve the uniqueness of Champagne to do so. The bubbles give me pleasure. Ultimately, that is what I look for in any wine–does it give me pleasure drinking it?

There were other areas that I found common ground in Bursting Bubbles. I fully support exploring the terroir of single vineyards and single village wines, instead of just cranking out millions of bottles of mass regional blends.

Top Shelf Gummy Bears Though…

There is so much Dom Perignon flooding the market that they are literally turning it into gummie bears.
It’s hard to see this happening with a Chateau Margaux or a Corton-Charlemagne.

An astute point that Walters make is that in most great wine regions, a mass regional blend would be at the bottom of the quality pyramid like an AOC Bourgogne or Bordeaux Supérieur. But in Champagne, you can make 5 million bottles a year of Dom Perignon sourced from hundreds of vineyards across at least 21 villages and it is called a “prestige cuvee”. Wine drinkers should start thinking more critically about where their Champagne is coming from and who is making it.

So while I understand Walters’ point that “Champagne should be considered a wine first and a sparkling wine second”, I’m going to part ways with him when it comes to separating the sparkling from the wine.

I can easily find great Burgundy, great Bordeaux, great Rieslings and the like. The world is awash with great still wines. But when it comes to Champagnes, and yes, I believe there are great Champagnes, I don’t want my bubbles to burst.

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Snooty or Flute-y?

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski. Release under CC-BY-SA-2.0 on Wikimedia CommonsDid you ring in the New Years with a flute of bubbles?

You uncouth swine!

Don’t you know that all the cool kids are ditching flutes in favor of regular wine glasses? As Margareth Henriquez, president of Champagne Krug, describes it, drinking your bubbly from flutes is like going to a concert with ear plugs and should only be used for “…bad Champagne, sorbet or gazpacho.”

Oh my!

Obviously, a few folks had some dissenting opinions on this anti-flute craze, most notably Jameson Fink of Wine Enthusiast who wrote an impassioned defense of the unfashionable flute, bringing some scientific expertise for back-up.

It’s a fairly good defense with the strongest argument, in my opinion, coming from David Gire, assistant professor at the University of Washington’s psychology department. Gire notes how important visionary aesthetics are to enjoyment and how they can psychologically impact our perception of flavor. As Fink points out, even the most ardent anti-flutists can’t discount the visual appeal that flutes have with their cascading beads of bubbles.

Now for me, I take a pragmatic approach. I’ll drink my bubbles from a variety of vessels and see what I like. So far, my runaway favorite has been the Luigi Bormioli Wine Styles Pink Wine Glass. You can see it in use for many of my sparkling wine reviews such as for the Paringa Sparkling Shiraz and Deligeroy Cremant de Loire.

I’ll also use a traditional flute like in my reviews of the Levert Freres Cremant de Bourgogne, Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top and Segura Viudas Cavas. And I will do like the cool kids sometimes in using a regular ole wine glass such as with the De Venoge Princes Blanc de Noirs.

The Bormioli pink wine glass has become my go-to because it combines the best of both worlds. I get a wider opening that allows the aromatics to come out but it is sufficiently narrow to showcase the bubbles.

You can see the difference in bubbles between the 3 types of glasses – the Bormioli pink wine glass, a flute and a regular wine glass.

For the most part, I agree with Fink that the visual spectacle of the bubbles is key to enjoyment. While there are advocates in the wine industry (such as Robert Walters in his book Bursting Bubbles) that argue that focusing on the “bubbles” in Champagne takes away from appreciation and evaluation of it as a “real wine”, I’m not on that boat. In their opinion, a great Champagne is one that you could completely degas and it would stand on it own. The trend away from flutes (so they say) helps highlight the “realness” of great Champagne.

There may be truth to that but, dammit, I like my bubbles!

My go-to bubbles glass, the Luigi Bormioli pink wine glass

However, I can’t completely join Fink on the dark side of Flute Apologetics because, in my own anecdotal experience, I don’t get as much life and depth from my bubbles when I’m nosing them through the narrow opening of a flute. In fact, a friend of mine of who read my lackluster reviews for the 2004 and 2006 vintages of Dom Perignon at Daniel’s Champagne Gala, urged me to try them again in a regular wine glass because, in his view, the “yeasty depth of Dom never shows well in a flute.” He probably has a point.

So I like my compromise Bormioli glasses but I’ll certainly keep on experimenting.

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Champagne Mystery

I was working through one of my new wine books, Bursting Bubbles by Robert Walters, when I came across this snarky little gem on page 76 about a mystery négociant running a tourist trap on the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay.

I will not name it, for reasons that will soon become obvious. This producer offers us a typical example of how a small, mediocre house can use an address on the avenue in an attempt to raise the prestige of it brand and sell more wine. You will not find the wines of this producer listed in any decent Champagne guide–the wines do not merit it. They are searing tart concoctions of battery acid plus sugar, with no trace of fruit.

The quote comes from a chapter where the author previously visits the house of Moët & Chandon and throughout the book you can easily gleam his general disdain for large négociant houses that produce wines more of manipulation and marketing rather than terroir. In other chapters, the author visits smaller growers like Egly-Ouriet and Jacques Selosse and talks about the need to bring Champagne back to where it is thought of and treated like a wine more than just a brand.

Readers of my previous posts about the wines of Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy and Roederer will probably garner that I do have some sympathy with Robert Walters’ view point and, overall, I’m enjoying reading Bursting Bubbles.

However, I’m thoroughly intrigued about the identity of our battery acid Champagne house and decided to go on a little mystery hunt.

Let’s look at some of the clues.

1.) They have offices or at least a visiting center on the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay.
2.) They seem to be relatively close to Moët & Chandon.
3.) They are a négociant.
4.) They won’t be found in any “decent” Champagne guide.
5.) They apparently own service apartments available for rent on the Avenue de Champagne.


Clue #1 and #2 – Avenue de Champagne close to Moët & Chandon

Trying to find an exact list of all the houses on the Avenue de Champagne was a bit difficult. There are several pages that list many of the “famous names” like:
Moët & Chandon
Perrier-Jouët
Boizel
de Venoge
Vranken Pommery
Pol Roger
Mercier
G.H. Martel

All of the above names are duly famous and capable of selling wines apart from a prestigious address so I feel fairly certain they should be all ruled out. Plus, I would be shocked if anyone ever described the wines of Pol Roger, Pommery or de Venoge as “battery acid”.

The Wikipedia page on the Avenue adds Lafond and De Castellane.

The Avenue de Champagne with Moët & Chandon at the far left and Champagne A. Bergère at the far right.


Taking to Google Maps and starting by Moët & Chandon, we see something labeled as “Winery MCHS” which appears to be owned by Moët & Chandon followed by Perrier-Jouët, Champagne Collard-Picard, winery Haton Claude (which doesn’t even have a complete Yelp page), winery Moreau André (also doesn’t have much of an internet presence), Champagne Esterlin and Champagne A. Bergère.

Clue #3 – They are a négociant
As far as I can tell, all the names on this list are négociants with the exceptions of Champagne Collard-Picard (a récoltant manipulant) and Champagne Esterlin (a cooperative)–which removes them from consideration. Since our mystery “battery acid producer” seems to be making deliberate attempts to target tourists, it’s likely that they would have a more significant online presence than the Haton Claude and Moreau André wineries so I feel it is safe to rule them out as well.

Clue #4 – They won’t be found in any “decent” Champagne guide

Photo by Fab5669 released on Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-4.0

The houses of de Venoge and Boizel on the Avenue of Champagne in Epernay


This is a bit vague since it is up for grabs as to what Robert Walters considers a “decent” Champagne guide or not. In an intro chapter he does recommend Peter Liem’s Champagne box set, Michael Edwards’ The Finest Wines of Champagne and Tyson Stelzer’s The Champagne Guide.

At the moment, I only have Liem’s guide, David White’s But First Champagne and Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine.

After narrowing it down from the above list, I searched through my 3 guides for any entries about:
Champagne Lafond
Champagne De Castellane
Champagne A. Bergère (Andre)

My “decent” Champagne guides


David White’s But First, Champagne is heavily tilted towards grower producers so it was not a surprise that I came up empty on all 3 in that book. Though while Peter Liem gives almost equal attention to négociants and growers, I also came up empty in that guide.

But with the far more exhaustive Christie’s encyclopedia I found an entry for Champagne Comtess Lafond which describes the wine style as being “vinous with cream, nuts, spice, toffee note and a hint of deliberate oxidation.” They also have an entry on De Castellane where I learned that this house is part of the Laurent-Perrier, Salon and Delamotte ownership group making a house style with “plenty of freshness and fruit, not lacking in intensity or length, and absolutely clean.”.

There is an entry in Christie’s for an Alain Bergère, a grower producer in the Côte de Sézanne but I could not find anything for a Champagne Andre Bergère whose website says it was founded by Albert Bergère in Epernay in 1949.

Clue #5 – Apartments for rent on the Avenue du Champagne

Alexandra says it was a great location for a nice weekend.

Here it appears that several Champagne houses rent out extra apartment space for tourists. But of the 3 houses that we narrowed above, the only one I could find on Booking.com was Champagne André Bergère with a very nice “Awesome” rating of 9.2 out of 10 from Booking.com users.

Mystery solved?

Perhaps the house of Champagne A. Bergère is the “battery acid” tourist trap that Robert Walters dismisses in his book. Perhaps not. I, myself, am always hesitant to write off an estate until I experience it firsthand. I’ve yet had the privilege of strolling down the Avenue de Champagne but when I do, I’ll keep an eye out for these tourist traps and will probably make an effort to try the wines just so that I can form my own opinion.

Plus, the battery acid may add some character.

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