A few quick thoughts on the 2016 Hess Chardonnay from Napa Valley.
Donald Hess came from a family of brewers in Switzerland. But in his twenties, Hess purchased a mineral water source and founded Valser Wasser that grew to become the largest in Switzerland. It was a search for new sources in California that would bring Hess to discover Napa Valley wines in the 1970s and eventually lease the old Mont La Salle winery on Mount Veeder from the Christian Brothers.
The Su’skol Vineyard, located just east of Carneros at the far southern extreme of Napa Valley, is the source for the estate Chardonnay. The vineyard is unique with Hess using massal selection to propagate and sustain a mixture of 9 different clones of Chardonnay–including several of the aromatic musqué clones. Like all their estate vineyards, Hess farms Su’skol sustainably and is certified Napa Green.
Depending on the vintage, around 20-30% is fermented in new French oak for nine months with weekly lees stirring for four months. A similarly small amount will see malolactic fermentation. In 2016, around 21,700 cases were made.
Gorgeous citrus blossom notes in this Chardonnay.
High-intensity nose. Lots of lemon with very citrusy white blossom notes as well. Subtle herbal and white pepper spice reminds me of both Sauvignon blanc and Gruner Veltliner. With air, spiced pear hints at oak and more Chardonnay-like fruit.
On the palate, the Chardonnay character emerges with spiced pear, as well as apples, going along with the still pronounced citrus fruits. There’s also noticeable medium-plus weight and subtle vanilla creaminess of oak. It doesn’t dominate the profile, but the fresh lemon definitely moves to more lemon custard. High acidity still maintains freshness with a mouthwatering nature that lingers on a long finish.
This is definitely a very different Cali Chard that’s nothing like the butter bomb “cougar juice” stereotype. Nor is it trying to be a wannabe Chablis.
For around $17-20 retail, it’s just a plain delicious Chardonnay that is well worth finding.
Note: All the wines reviewed here were samples provided on a press tour.
Back in my retail days, premium Napa Sauvignon blanc was always some of the hardest wines to sell. I’d have fantastic producers like Araujo, Bevan, Cakebread, Grgich Hills, Duckhorn, etc. sit on the shelf untouched. Even during the peak white wine season of summer, it took every bit of handselling savvy to get these bottles into baskets.
You’d think that good wine wouldn’t be that difficult to move, but Napa SB had two knocks against it.
1.) It’s a white Napa wine (usually) over $20 that’s not Chardonnay. (Because, hey, why not get Chateau Montelena or Moone-Tsai Chard instead?)
2.) It’s a Sauvignon blanc over $20. (Why spend more than Kim Crawford or Oyster Bay?)
Now I’m not saying that it’s impossible to sell a Napa Sauvignon blanc over $20.
Obviously, these bottles are selling somewhere (such as tasting rooms). But it’s a tough sell in many retail settings because of the way that most US stores are laid out.
Here you’ll often see varietal wines from New World regions like California, New Zealand, Chile and South Africa all grouped together. Napa Sauvignon blanc rarely seems like a compelling value when stocked among their more value-oriented peers. Even if a shop had a dedicated “California” or “American wine” section, these wines are still competing against sub-$20 options from Washington State, Sonoma, Monterey County, etc.
The few Napa bottles that manage to stay under that magical $20 mark–like St. Supery, Mondavi and Honig–tend to fare better. But even these wines regularly lose sales to other regions.
This is because, in the minds of many consumers, Napa Sauvignon blanc doesn’t have a distinctive style–only a distinctive price tag.
And while they’re more likely to swallow the Napa price for Chardonnay (and, of course, Cabernet Sauvignon), that halo effect rarely reaches the Sauvignon blanc aisle.
Instead, customers who are interested in spending top dollar for Sauvignon blanc are more likely to go over to the Old World aisles for Loire or White Bordeaux. Here, the premium pricing of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Pessac-Leognan doesn’t drag each other down. More importantly, they promise a unique regional identity–which is key.
Back in the varietal section, those few customers reaching for the top shelf are more apt to grab Cloudy Bay. Or maybe one of the few other high-quality New Zealand Sauvignon blanc wines that make their way to the US. Even if you don’t know the producer, seeing the words “Marlborough” and “New Zealand” on the label promises something distinctive.
What is Napa Sauvignon blanc promising?
Something less green and herbaceous than New Zealand? Maybe. Though some producers have been experimenting with things like early harvest, heavier crop load and canopy shading to create more NZ-like flavors.
Something with a lavish texture and noticeable oak influence? Perhaps. These tend to be the more expensive and highly rated examples of Napa Sauvignon blanc. But, again, you have the question of why should a consumer who’s looking to spend top dollar for that style not go with a Chardonnay or white Bordeaux instead?
Which brings us back to the muddled middle that premium Napa Sauvignon blanc finds itself in. It’s not a value-priced wine. But it’s not as distinctive as other premium white wine categories.
Napa has to deliver something compelling–something interesting–to merit those lofty prices.
Of course, Napa wine is always going to be premium priced because of the high cost of land here.
They can’t rely just on the name “Napa” or even the quality in the bottle. Yes, having an outstanding wine helps sell in the tasting room where people can try it for themselves. But you don’t always have that privilege on the sales floor or restaurant table. Those premium bottles have to be hand-sold by an enthusiastic wine steward or sommelier who has already been wowed by the wine.
Though here’s the rub.
Every steward and sommelier is going to have dozens upon dozens of bottles that they’re passionate about. Everything from geeky varieties, obscure regions, small-lot productions to wineries with great stories–they all need handselling. Even hand-sold wines need to find ways to stand out from the pack.
In search of interesting Napa Sauvignon blanc.
During my trip to the Stags Leap District, I had many showstopping wines. And, yes, that included some absolutely delicious Napa Sauvignon blanc.
I noticed a pattern that many of the best examples prominently featured the Sauvignon Musqué clone. This caught my attention as growers in the Arroyo Seco region of Monterey County are also using this clone to make some thoroughly intriguing wines.
A few of my favorites were:
2018 Taylor Family ($40) made from 100% Musqué clone from Yountville.
2017 JK Ilsley ($35) also from Yountville and majority Musqué.
2017 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar Rancho Chimiles ($40) made from 86% Musqué. This was way more aromatic and textural than SLWC’s regular Aveta Sauvignon blanc ($26) that is only 8% Musqué.
But as delicious as those wines were, it’s hard to say that they were compelling enough to merit a $20+ price tag–especially compared to the similarly delicious Sauvignon Musqué from areas like Arroyo Seco that cost far less. Picturing these bottles sitting on the same retail shelf, it’s not hard to see the higher-priced Napa bottles gathering dust.
However, there was one Napa Sauvignon blanc-based wine that more than stood out as being worth every penny.
I was already familiar with Elizabeth Vianna’s outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon. Nestled in the southern end of the Stags Leap District, neighboring Clos du Val and one of Shafer’s vineyards, this is obviously prime red wine territory. But instead of offering the typical Carneros Chardonnay that is omnipresent in Napa, Chimney Rock’s flagship white is a fruit-forward but elegant white Bordeaux style blend–with a twist.
Bordeaux-style wine made by a Brazilian winemaker at a Cape Dutch-inspired winery in the heart of Napa. There’s a lot going on at Chimney Rock and it’s all delicious.
Vianna has never been a fan of Semillon from Napa. Compared to Bordeaux, Semillon gets too lush and fat here. Now winemakers could do a juggling act with early harvests (like they do in the Hunter Valley) to retain acidity. But while that may work for a low alcohol varietal wine requiring long term aging, it’s not necessarily the ideal match for adding depth to Napa Sauvignon blanc.
Instead, Vianna and her predecessor, Doug Fletcher, fell in love with the “secret ingredient” hidden in many of the best white Bordeaux–Sauvignon gris.
Chateau Palmer in Margaux; Haut Brion, Smith Haut Lafitte and Pape Clement in Pessac-Leognan; Valandraud, Fombrauge and Monbousquet in St. Emilion. Depending on the vintage, you’ll often find anywhere from 5% up to 50% (2018 Blanc de Valandraud) of Sauvignon gris in these highly-acclaimed wines.
So what the heck is Sauvignon gris?
Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz’s Wine Grapes notes that Sauvignon gris is a color mutation of Sauvignon blanc. Similar to the Pinot gris mutation of Pinot, it’s not known precisely where Sauvignon gris first emerged.
One possibility is the Loire, where the grape is known as Fié. Ridiculously low yielding, the vine was almost wholly lost to phylloxera as producers replanted with other varieties. It’s only recently, with the rediscovery of abandoned old vine vineyards such as Jacky Preys’ site in Mareuil-sur-Cher, that Sauvignon gris is getting another look.
Compared to Sauvignon blanc, Sauvignon gris tends to have slightly thicker skins often with a pink hue. It produces wines of medium-plus to high acidity with pronounced, concentrated flavors of melon, mango, stone and citrus fruit as well as a robust floral component. In the cooler climates of the Loire, it can add some subtle herbaceous notes though it rarely gets as green as Sauvignon blanc.
In addition to the Loire and California, producers in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Moldova and New Zealand are also experimenting with Sauvignon gris.
A tasting of three Chimney Rock Elevage Blanc
Tasting the Elevage Blanc and other Chimney Rock wines with Elizabeth Vianna and Kenneth Friedenreich, author of Oregon Wine Country Stories.
The winemaking of Elevage Blanc is very Bordeaux-like with a mixture of barrel fermentation and stainless steel using several yeast stains for complexity. The barrel component (usually around 1/3 new French and 1/3 neutral) sees frequent bâttonage beginning with 3-4 times a week and then gradually decreasing. The wine often goes through malolactic fermentation for stability. Depending on the vintage, around 3000 cases a year are made.
Medium-plus intensity nose of tropical fruit with a savory, smokey component. Proscuitto wrapped melon-balls comes to mind. Along with the melon is some noticeable spiced pear.
On the palate, the pear and oak spices (nutmeg, clove) come through with a little cardamon. The slightly salty, savory, smokey notes are there as well but less pronounced than they were on the nose. The full-bodied mouthfeel is well balanced with medium-plus acidity–giving a lot of life to this wine. But the moderate finish lingering on the spice shows that its time is nearing the end. Still quite impressive for a 10+-year-old white wine.
High-intensity nose. Intense fresh and grilled peaches. Less noticeable oak than the 2008 with the smokiness being more flinty. This one was also the most floral of the three with a mixture of elderflower and white lilies. Very mouthwatering bouquet.
On the palate, the peaches carry through joined by apples that also have a grilled component. Again, the oak is far less noticeable with maybe some subtle vanilla creaminess to go with the full-bodied richness. However, the high acidity keeps this wine well in check. The mouthwatering grilled peaches continue throughout the long finish. The highest proportion of Sauvignon gris and one of the best wines I had on the entire trip.
Medium-plus intensity nose–apple and citrus-driven (star fruit, lemon). It’s the only one of three without a smokey, savory component. However, the oak is noticeable with pastry dough and clove spice. With air, tropical mango emerges as well as very ripe apricot.
On the palate, the toasty pastry and ripe tree fruit (apple & apricot) carry through. While not as heavy and oaky as a Chard, this one definitely feels the weightiest with the pastry tart element. Medium-plus acidity helps keep the full-bodied wine balanced. It also highlights more of the citrus flavors from the nose, bringing some pomelo to the party. Those more defined fruits offset the oak flavors, letting the citrus dominant the medium-plus length finish.
Definitely was one of my top wines of 2019. Such a stellar white that still has several years to go.
While 2014 was my clear favorite, each of these Elevage Blancs was well worth a premium $50 price. They had complexity with each vintage showing its own distinct and unique personality.
It’s clear that Sauvignon gris, itself, adds interesting elements when blended with Sauvignon blanc that you don’t always get with Semillon or Muscadelle in white Bordeaux. Most notable for me was how Sauvignon gris seems to deal with oak, steering the wine towards more savory flavors as opposed to just “oaky” notes.
In contrast, I feel like Semillon and Sauvignon blanc tend to absorb oak flavors like a sponge–making the wine feel more Chardonnay like. It was notable that as the quantity of SG decreased, the oak in the Elevage Blanc became more noticeable.
Blend vs. Varietal
Only the 2016 vintage of Elevage Blanc could be labeled as a varietal Sauvignon blanc. But maybe ditching the varietal designation is the answer to avoiding that muddled middle which plagues these Napa white wines? While a New World “white blend” aisle probably doesn’t get as much traffic as the Sauvignon blanc section, it doesn’t come with the baggage either.
A premium Napa white blend isn’t competing with the value-driven options from New Zealand, Chile and elsewhere. Instead, it can pull more of the “halo effect” of the Napa name as it stands out from various white blends from Lodi, Paso Robles, Sonoma, Washington State, etc.
There is still the question of regional identity, but not many regions have staked a claim to Sauvignon gris. No matter which style you go with–crisp, stainless or lavish, oak-driven–Sauvignon gris adds its own “twist” to the wine. This is something that Napa can sink its teeth into, crafting a distinct regional style of Sauvignon blanc/Sauvignon gris blends.
Though, they better hurry before someone else beats them to the punch.
We’ve covered the exceptions of the Montagne de Reims and Vallée de la Marne in parts I and II of this series. Now we turn our focus to the Côte des Blancs, the “hill of whites.”
Coat of Arms of the Grand Cru village of Avize. Note the color of the grapes.
It’s almost an understatement to say that this region is universally known for world-class Chardonnay. Of all the superlatives in Champagne, this is one you can absolutely take to the bank.
So pretty short article today, eh?
Well, not quite.
I’ve still got a few geeky tricks up my sleeve–including one notable exception. But more importantly, we’re going to look at the why behind the superlative.
Why Chardonnay? And why does no one talk about planting Pinot noir here? After all, it’s also a highly prized noble variety. So why is the entire Côte des Blancs region planted to 85% Chardonnay with only 7% Pinot noir?
To answer that, we need to cut deep as we look at the sub-regions of the Côte des Blancs.
That last one, Montgueux, is a bit of a wild card. I can see why it is officially grouped with the Côte des Blancs. But it’s in the Aube department, just west of Troyes. In comparison to the other subregions, Montgueux is 60 km away from Sézanne and over 100km away from Avize. So I’m going to put this one aside till Part IV.
In Part I & II, I gave a few recommendations of helpful wine books and study tools. Today, I’ll add two more that I’ll be relying heavily on for this article.
Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay’s The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste – This is the perfect companion to Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s World Atlas of Wine. While the latter goes into geeky encyclopedic detail, The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste ties those details back to how they directly influence what ends up in your glass. Great book for blind tasting exams.
James E. Wilson’s Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wines – Not going to lie. This is not a bedtime read. Well, it is if you want a melatonin boost. While chockful of tremendous insight, this is a very dense and technical book. You want to treat this more as an encyclopedia–looking up a particular region–rather than something you go cover to cover with. But if you want to sharpen your understanding of French wine regions, it’s worth a spot on your bookcase. (Especially with used copies on Amazon available for less than $10)
When you think of the Côte des Blancs, think about the Côte d’Or.
Vineyards in the northern Grand Cru of Chouilly with the Butte de Saran in the background.
The Côte des Blancs is essentially Champagne’s extension of the Brie plateau (yes, like the cheese). Over time it has eroded and brought the deep chalky bedrock to the surface. Like the Côte d’Or, both the heart of the Côte des Blancs and Cote de Sézanne have east-facing slopes capped by forests with a fertile plain at the bottom.
This prime exposure is the first to receive warmth from the early morning sun. During the cold spring nights of flowering (after bud break), Chardonnay is most vulnerable as the earliest bloomer. It needs to get to that warmth quickly for successful pollination.
It’s a similar reason why growers in the Côte des Blancs avoid planting near the very top of the slope where there is more clay. The soils here are cooler and don’t heat up as quickly. Plus, being so close to the misty forest cap encourages wetter conditions that promote botrytis. As we covered in Part II, both Chardonnay and Pinot noir are quite sensitive to this ignoble rot.
Echoing back to Burgundy, we see that the most prized plantings of Chardonnay (notably the Grand Cru villages) in the Côte des Blancs are midslope. In the sparse areas where we do find Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier, it’s usually the flatter, fertile plains that have deeper topsoils.
The Tiny Exceptions.
This is the case with the premier cru village of Vertus. While still 90% Chardonnay, the southern end of the village sees more clay and deeper topsoils as the slope flattens and turns westward. This encourages a little red grape planting with fruit from the village going to houses like Duval-Leroy, Larmandier-Bernier, Delamotte, Louis Roederer, Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot.
The village of Grauves is also an interesting case. In his book, Champagne, Peter Liem argues that this premier cru should actually be part of the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay. Looking at a good wine map, you can easily see why. It’s on the other side of the forest cap from the rest of the Côte des Blancs villages–opposite Cramant and Avize. Here most all the vineyards face westward. While Chardonnay still dominates (92%), we see a tiny amount of Meunier (7%) and Pinot noir (1%) creep in.
Likewise, in Cuis–where vineyards make an almost 180 arch from Cramant and Chouilly to Grauves–we see a range of exposures that adds some variety to the plantings (4% red grapes). The home village of Pierre Gimonnet, Cuis is still thoroughly Chardonnay country as a fruit source for Billecart-Salmon, Bollinger and Moët & Chandon.
This video (3:08) from Champagne Pierre Domi in Grauves has several great aerial drone shots of the area.
So you could say, why bother planting Pinot noir when you have such great Chardonnay terroir?
But there are other viticultural reasons for the Côte des Blancs to flavor Chardonnay over Pinot noir. For one, despite the topographical similarities to the Côte d’Or (and Côte de Nuits), the soil is much chalkier in the Côte des Blancs. While Pinot noir likes chalk, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
Chalk has many benefits, but it also has a significant negative.
It’s high calcium content and alkaline nature encourages reactions in the soil that make vital nutrients like iron and magnesium scarce. Both are needed for chlorophyll production and photosynthesis. A lack of these nutrients can lead to chlorosis–of which Pinot noir is particularly susceptible.
The effects of chlorosis can be seen in the yellowing of leaves due to lack of chlorophyll. Considering that all the sugars that go into ripening grapes come from the energy production of photosynthesis, this isn’t great for a wine region that often teeters on the edge of ripeness–especially with Pinot noir.
There is also more lignitic clay down in the Val du Petit Morin and Marne Valley. This picture is from the website of Champagne Oudiette who has vineyards in both areas.
As James Wilson notes in Terroir, the “magical ingredient” to help balance these soils is lignite. In Champagne, lignitic clays are known as cendres noires or “black ashes.” Essentially compressed peat mixed with clay, the cendres noires helps hold these critical nutrients in the soil.
The Montagne de Reims, particularly around Bouzy and Ambonnay (which are home to quarries of cendres noires), naturally has more of this “magical ingredient.” While chlorosis can be an issue for Chardonnay as well–requiring the use of fertilizers or cendres noires to supplement the soil–the risk isn’t as grave.
However, there is one red grape stronghold in the Côte des Blancs.
While still paced by Chardonnay (52%), this is the one area of the Côte des Blancs where you’ll find villages dominated by something else. If you have a good wine map (and read Part II of our series), you’ll see why.
Cutting between the Côte des Blancs and Côte de Sézanne, the Petit Morin is an east-west river that brings with it a fair amount of frost danger. Also, like the Marne, we see more diversity in soils with alluvial sand and clay joining the chalk party.
The Petit Morin also flows through the marshes of Saint-Gond–which played a key role in the First Battle of the Marne during World War I. Swampy marshland (and the threat of botrytis) frustrates Chardonnay and Pinot noir just as much as it frustrated the Germans.
Among the notable villages here:
Congy– (50% Pinot Meunier/28% Chardonnay) The home village of the renowned grower Ulysse Collin. This estate was one of the first to bring attention to the Val du Petit Morin.
Étréchy – The only premier cru outside of the heart of the Côte des Blancs. Neighboring both Vertus and Bergères-lès-Vertus (so away from the river), this follows the narrative of many of its 1er and Grand Cru peers by being 100% Chardonnay.
Villevenard – (53% Pinot Meunier/37% Chardonnay) Along with Sainte-Gemme in the Vallée de la Marne Rive Droite, Leuvrigny in the Rive Gauche and Courmas in the Vesle et Ardre of the Montagne de Reims, this autre cru is a source of Meunier for Krug. It’s also the home of Champagne Nominé Renard whose relatives help pioneer Champagne production in the village.
The video below (6:15) tells a little bit about their story with views of the vineyards starting at the 2:14 mark. You can see here how different the soils look compared to the heart of the Côte des Blancs with the Grand Crus.
Côte de Sézanne
Just about every wine book will describe the Côte de Sézanne as a “warmer, southern extension of the Côte des Blancs.” The region certainly upholds the Chardonnay banner with the grape accounting for more than 75% of plantings.
But most of those wine books are going to ignore the Val du Petit Morin mentioned above. And they’re certainly going to ignore the influence that the swampy Marais Saint-Gond has on the northern villages of the Côte de Sézanne. Here we see villages like Allemant and Broyes, which, while still Chardonnay dominant, have more diversity than the near monovarietal heart of the Côte des Blancs.
Even going south to the namesake autre cru of Sézanne, we see nearly a third of the vineyards devoted to red grapes. Here, further away from the Val du Petit Morin, we still have a fair amount of clay in the soil. This, combined with the warmer climate, shapes not only the Chardonnays of the Côte de Sézanne (riper, more tropical) but also paves the way for red grape plantings.
In the village of Montgenost, south of Sézanne, we get firmly back to Chardonnay country (94%). This is the home turf of the excellent grower Benoît Cocteaux. While the video below (2:12) is in French, it does have some great images of the area.
If the Côte de Sézanne is the southern extension of the Côte des Blancs, then the Vitryat is its southeastern arm. And it’s even more of a “mini-me” than the Sézannais.
Of the 15 autre crus here, four are 100% Chardonnay-Changy, Loisy-sur-Marne, Merlaut and Saint-Amand-sur-Fion. Another four have 99% of their vineyards exclusive to the grape with no village having less than 95% Chardonnay. Yeah, it’s pretty much a white-out here.
Among the teeniest, tiniest of exceptions worth noting are:
Glannes – 97% Chardonnay/3% Pinot noir with fruit going to Moët & Chandon.
Vanault-le-Châtel – 99.1% Chardonnay, 0.3% Pinot noir with 0.6% other (Pinot gris, Pinot blanc, Arbane and/or Petit Meslier). Louis Roederer purchases fruit from here.
Vavray-le-Grand – 99% Chardonnay/1% Pinot noir. A source of fruit for Billecart-Salmon.
The village of Montgueux (which we’ll cover in Part 4) shares the same Turonian era chalk as the Vitryat sub-region. Both are different from the Campanian chalk of the Côte des Blancs and Côte de Sézanne.
Even as the Côte des Blancs exhibits the supreme superlative in its Chardonnay-dominance, looking under the covers always reveals more.
But the biggest takeaway that I hope folks are getting from this series is that both the exceptions and superlatives make sense. The combination of soils, climate and topography lend themselves more to some grape varieties over the other.
This is the story of terroir. The problems come when we start thinking of regions as monolithic and accepting, prima facie, the butter knife narrative about them. Even when the superlatives are overwhelmingly true (i.e., the Côte des Blancs is known for outstanding Chardonnay), the reasons why cut deeper.
We’ll wrap up this series with a look at the Côte des Bar.
Welcome back! To get the lowdown on the series check out Part I where we explore the exceptions of the Montagne de Reims. In Part III and IV, we’ll check out the Côte des Blancs and the Aube/Côte des Bar.
As for today, we’re heading to the Vallée de la Marne.
The Marne river flowing past Épernay in the early 20th century.
If you’re one of those folks who “know enough to be dangerous” about Champagne, you’ll peg the Vallée de la Marne as the Pinot Meunier corner of the holy triumvirate of Champagne. However, as we noted in part one, neatly pigeonholing these regions with a single variety cuts about as deep as a butter knife.
Having good wine maps is an absolute must for any wine student.
Yes, you can find some online. For today’s journey through the Vallée de la Marne,this interactive mapfrom Château Loisel will be useful. But sometimes clicking between computer tabs is annoying compared to a physical map in front of you.
I mentioned the Louis Larmat maps yesterday. But let me give you two more excellent options.
Map of the Vallée de la Marne from the UMC website. In the lower-right, you can see the start of the Côte des Blancs with the Grand Cru village of Avize noted.
Unfortunately, these maps are mostly only available in France. However, I was able to buy several when I lived in the US through Amazon for around $11-13 each. You will still need to pay international shipping. But buying multiples at once helps offset that a little.
Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s World Atlas of Wine is always a reliable resource. It will list many of the villages and show topographical details. The only negative is that it doesn’t highlight the 17 subregions within Champagne.
Across the 103 villages of the Vallée de la Marne, it’s no shock that Pinot Meunier reigns supreme. The grape accounts for nearly 60% of all plantings.
The Marne river meandering by the premier cru village of Hautvillers.
As with many river valleys, frost is always going to be a hazard as cold air sinks and follows the rivers. Compared to larger bodies of waters such as lakes or estuaries, the relatively narrow and low-lying Marne doesn’t moderate the climate as dramatically.
That means that drops in temperature during bud break can be devastating for a vintage. A perfect example of this was the 2012 vintage.
This risk is most severe for Pinot noir. It buds the earliest followed soon after by Chardonnay. Then several days later, Pinot Meunier hits bud break–often missing the worst of the frost.
As we saw with many of the exceptions in the Montagne de Reims, the threat of frost in river valleys tilts the favor towards Meunier. It also helps that the grape is a tad more resistant to botrytis than Pinot noir and Chardonnay. This and other mildews thrive in the damp, humid conditions encouraged by the morning fog following the river.
Finally, while there is limestone throughout the Vallée de la Marne, it’s more marl (mixed with sand and clay) rather than chalk. Pinot noir and Chardonnay can do very well in these kinds of soils. However, Pinot Meunier has shown more affinity for dealing with the combination of cooler soils and a cooler, wetter climate.
But, of course, there are always exceptions–none more prominent than the Grande Vallée de la Marne.
In many ways, the Grande Vallée should be thought of as the southern extension of the Montagne de Reims. Its two Grand Crus, Aÿ and Tours-sur-Marne, share many similarities with its neighbors, Bouzy and Ambonnay.
Along with the “super premier cru” of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, these south-facing slopes produce powerful Pinot noirs with excellent aging potential. Notable vineyards here include Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses, Billecart-Salmon’s Clos Saint-Hilaire and Bollinger’s Clos St.-Jacques & Clos Chaudes Terres (used for their Vieilles Vignes Françaises).
Jamie Goode has a fantastic short video (1:55) walking through the two Bollinger vineyards. One thing to notice is that the vines are trained to stakes and propagated by layering.
Compared to most of the Montagne de Reims, the vineyards here are slightly steeper. They’re also at lower altitudes as the land slopes towards the river. However, in contrast to most of the Vallée de la Marne west of Cumières (the unofficial end of the Grande Vallée), the climate is warmer here–tempering some of the frost risks.
Also, the topsoils are thinner with the influence of chalky bedrock more keenly felt. This is particularly true in the eastern premier cru village of Bisseuil, which is planted to majority Chardonnay (66%) and only 6% Pinot Meunier. These grapes go into the cuvées of many notable Champagne producers. Among them, AR Lenoble, Deutz, Mumm and Gonet-Médeville.
Though Chardonnay is mostly a backstage player in the Grande Vallée, the premier cru Dizy (37% Chardonnay) joins Bisseuil as notable exceptions. This is the home turf of Jacquesson with Perrier-Jouët and Roederer also getting grapes from here.
Across the Grande Vallée, Pinot noir reigns supreme.
It accounts for nearly 65% of all the plantings among the 12 villages of the region. Here Pinot Meunier is a distant third with only around 15% of vineyard land devoted to it.
Meunier slowly starts to creep up in importance the further west you go. Here the soils get cooler and clay-rich with more sand. In the premier cru of Champillon, Pinot Meunier accounts for 31% of plantings and is an important source for Moët & Chandon.
Likewise, in its neighbor to the west, Hautvillers (the historical home of Dom Perignon), Meunier also accounts for around a third of vineyards. Of course, Moët & Chandon sees a good chunk of Hautvillers’ grapes along with Veuve Clicquot, Roederer, Jacquesson and Joseph Perrier.
The vlogger Ben Slivka has a 2-minute video of the area taken from a vista point near Champagne G.Tribaut.
Côteaux Sud d’Épernay
Across the river from the Grande Vallée is the city of Epernay. The hills extending south and slightly west make up an interesting transition area between the Vallée de la Marne and Côte des Blancs.
The chalky bedrock is closer to the surface, with far less sand than most of the Vallée de la Marne. However, there is considerably more clay (and less east-facing slopes) in the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay than the Côte des Blancs. The area is slightly dominated by Pinot Meunier (45%), with Chardonnay close behind at 43%. The city of Épernay, itself, is an autre cru with considerable Chardonnay plantings (60%).
There is also quite a bit of rocky–even flinty-soil in the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay. This is particularly true around the premier cru village of Pierry which was the home of the influential monk, Frère Jean Oudart.
Dom Perignon likely spent his career trying to get rid of bubbles. However, his near-contemporary Oudart (who outlived Perignon by almost three decades) actually used liqueur de tirage (sugar and yeast mixture) to make his wines sparkle intentionally.
Except for Pierry, all the villages of the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay are autre crus.
Another geeky cool thing about Laherte Frères’ Les 7 Champagne is that it’s made as a perpetual cuvee in a modified solera system.
However, there are many notable villages, including Chavot-Courcourt–home to one of Champagne’s most exciting wine estates, Laherte Frères.
While the plantings of Chavot-Courcourt are slightly tilted towards Pinot Meunier (51% to 44% Chardonnay), in Laherte Frères’ Les Clos vineyard, all seven Champagne grape varieties are planted. Here Aurélien Laherte uses Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, Arbane and Petit Meslier to blend with the traditional big three to make his Les 7 cuvée. This is another “Must Try” wine for any Champagne lover.
Further south, we get closer to the Côte des Blancs with thinner top soils leading to more chalky influences. Here we encounter a string of villages all paced by Chardonnay–Moslins (58%) Mancy (52%), Morangis (52%) and Monthelon (51%).
Going back towards the northwest, the soils get cooler with more marly-clay. We return to Meunier country in villages such as Saint-Martin-d’Ablois (80% Pinot Meunier) and Moussy (61% PM)–home to the acclaimed Meunier-specialist José Michel & Fils and a significant source of grapes for Deutz.
Vallée de la Marne Rive Droite and Rive Gauche
As we move west, the superlatives of the Vallée de la Marne being Pinot Meunier country becomes gospel. The cold, mostly clay, marl and sandy soils lend themselves considerably to the early-ripening Meunier. Accounting for more than 75% of plantings, it’s only slightly more dominant in the Rive Gauche than the Rive Droite (70%).
Because of its location, there are more north-facing slopes on the left bank of the Rive Gauche. Conversely, the right bank of the Rive Droite has mostly south-facing slopes. This topography plays into the narrative that the Meunier from the Rive Gauche tends to be fresher, with higher acidity. In contrast, those from the Rive Droite are often broader and fruit-forward.
However, there are several valleys and folds along tributaries running into the Marne. This leads to a variety of exposures in each area. But with these tributaries comes more prevalence for damp morning fog. Along these narrow river valleys, the risk of botrytis-bunch rot increases. While Pinot Meunier is slightly less susceptible than Pinot noir and Chardonnay, it’s still a significant problem in the Marne Valley. The 2017 vintage is a good example of that.
Though not about Champagne, the Napa Valley Grape Growers has a great short video (3:30) about botrytis. While desirable for some wines, it usually wreaks havoc in the vineyard.
Since there are few exceptions in these areas, I’ll note some villages worth taking stock of.
Damery (Rive Droite) – Located just west of Cumières, Damery is on the border with the Grande Vallée. With over 400 ha of vines, it’s the largest wine-producing village in the Vallée de la Marne. Planted to 61% Meunier, Damery is an important source for many notable Champagne houses. Among them, AR Lenoble, Billecart-Salmon, Joseph Perrier, Taittinger, Roederer, Bollinger and Pol Roger.
Sainte-Gemme (Rive Droite) – With over 92% Pinot Meunier, this autre cru is one of Krug’s leading sources for the grape.
Mardeuil (Rive Gauche) – With 30% Chardonnay, this village has the highest proportion of the variety in the Rive Gauche. Henriot gets a good chunk of this fruit along with Moët & Chandon.
Festigny (Rive Gauche) – A solitary hill within a warm valley, this village reminds Peter Liem, author of Champagne, of the hill of Corton in Burgundy. While there is more chalk here than typical of the Marne, this area is still thoroughly dominated by Meunier (87%). Festigny is noted for its many old vine vineyards–particularly those of Michel Loriot’s Apollonis estate.
Gary Westby of K & L Wine Merchants visited Loriot in Festigny where he made the video below (1:12).
Vallée de la Marne Rive Ouest and the Terroir de Condé
We wrap up our overview of the Vallée de la Marne by looking at the westernmost vineyards in Champagne. I also include the Terroir de Condé here because it seems like the classification of villages is frequently merged between the two.
Saâcy-sur-Marne (Ouest) – One of only three authorized Champagne villages in the Seine-et-Marne department that borders Paris. In fact, Saâcy-sur-Marne is closer to Disneyland Paris (50km) than it is to Epernay (70km). Going this far west, the soils change–bringing up more chalk. Here, in this left bank village, Chardonnay dominates with 60%.
Connigis (Ouest) – This is the only village in the western Marne Valley where Pinot noir leads the way. It just scrapes by with 45% over Meunier (41%). On the left bank of the river, Connigis used to be considered part of the Terroir de Condé. Today, Moët & Chandon is a significant purchaser of grapes from this autre cru.
Trélou-sur-Marne – Like all of the (current) Terroir de Condé, this village is overwhelmingly planted to Pinot Meunier (72%). However, it’s worth a historical note as being the first place where phylloxera was found in the Marne. This right bank village also helps supply the behemoth 30+ million bottle production of Moët & Chandon.
Kristin Noelle Smith has an 8-part series on YouTube where she focuses on notable producers of Champagne.
In episode three on Moët & Chandon (26:35), Smith touches on the impact of phylloxera in Champagne.
Though the Marne flows westward, the best way to think of the Vallée de la Marne is as a river of Pinot Meunier that changes as you go east. In the west, it truly lives up to the superlative of Meunier-dominance. This is because of the influence of the river and abundance of cold, clay and sand-based soils. But as we go east, and the river widens by the city of Épernay, the story changes considerably.
The part that “forks” north, the Grande Vallée, shares similarities with the southern Montagne de Reims. Here the terroir takes on more of the characteristics of the Pinot noir-dominant Grand Crus of Bouzy and Ambonnay. Whereas the south fork of the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay becomes gradually chalkier. This explains why you see more Chardonnay-dominant villages the closer you get to the Côte des Blancs.
Nailing these two big distinctions (as well as understanding why Meunier thrives in the Marne) is truly dangerous knowledge. Especially for your pocketbook!
So drink up and I’ll see you for part III on the Côte des Blancs!
19th-century map of the Montagne de Reims. Most of the Grand Crus are visible on the right side of the map, following the tree line down to the Marne river. Also featured are the villages of the Perle Blanche, Petite Montagne and part of the Vallée de l’Ardre which we’ll talk about below.
Montagne de Reims – Known for Pinot noir
Côte des Blancs – Known for Chardonnay
Vallée de la Marne – Known for Pinot Meunier
If they know a little bit more, they’ll throw in the Côte des Sézanne (known for Chardonnay) and the Côte des Bar in the Aube (known for Pinot noir).
None of that is wrong.
But it’s very incomplete and could certainly use a few whetstones. For one, each of those regions that are known for something all have significant exceptions. There are villages or even entire sub-regions that are dominated by other grape varieties.
Map of the Montagne de Reims from the Union des Maisons de Champagne website.
Many times the exceptions are driven by changes in soils and topography. This will consequentially impact the styles of wines coming from these areas. Understanding the exceptions–and why they are exceptions–is vital to having a sharper knowledge about Champagne.
So lets cut through the haze and geek out a bit. My tools for this journey are:
Tomas’s Wine Blog which is, by far, one of the most extensive and worthwhile resource on the individual villages (all 319 of them) of Champagne. Seriously, if you love Champagne, you need to bookmark this page.
Peter Liem’s Champagne. It’s one of the Five Essential Books On Champagne precisely because it dives deep into the many subregions and exceptions of Champagne–giving you fantastic details on why they are exceptions. The box set also includes reproductions of Louis Larmat’s maps of Champagne which are a wine geek’s wet dream.
I’m not kidding about those Larmat maps. Below is a short YouTube video (2:57) made by someone from K & L wine merchants that got their hands on an old copy of the maps from Moët & Chandon. Liem’s book includes the same seven maps–minus the special Moët vineyard annotations.
Part I-Montagne de Reims
Note: Today we’re just going to cover the exceptions and unique terroir of the Montagne de Reims. Now would be a good time to have a map like this of the villages handy to follow the geekery.
The superlative about the Montagne de Reims is that the area produces powerful Pinot noir-based Champagne. It’s a reputation well earned by wines from the Grand Cru villages of Ambonnay, Bouzy, Louvois, Verzenay, Verzy, Puisieulx, Beaumont-sur-Vesle and Mailly. Here you’ll find some of the most highly regarded Pinot noir vineyards in Champagne. This includes names such as Krug’s Clos du Amobonnay, Egly-Ouriet’s Les Crayères, André Clouet’s Les Clos, Pierre Paillard’s Les Maillerettes and Mumm de Verzenay.
Champagne from the northern Grand Cru of Mailly.
But the Montagne de Reims is far from monolithic. For one thing, it’s not even really a mountain. Rather it’s a broad plateau (the Grande Montagne) with a series of hills and valleys encircling Reims.
The Grand Crus on the north and eastern segment (Mailly, Verzenay, Verzy, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Puisieulx and Sillery) have mostly north-facing slopes which produce distinctly different Pinots than those from the south-facing slopes of Ambonnay, Bouzy and Louvois.
While the northern Pinots are still powerful, the root of their power comes more from their firm structure. Among their southern brethren, that power comes from the rich depth of fruit. This is why you see more still red Coteaux Champenois coming from these southern Grand Crus.
But it’s those unique north and north-east facing slopes that brings us to our first notable exception in Montagne de Reims. Sillery.
Across the broader Grande Montagne de Reims we have around 57% Pinot noir, 30% Chardonnay and 13% Pinot Meunier planted. However, in Sillery, Chardonnay leads the pack with almost 60% of plantings. The Champagne house Ruinart, which is well known for its Chardonnay-dominant Champagnes makes Sillery Chardonnay a major component of its prestige cuvée, Dom Ruinart.
In this GrapeRadio video with the cellarmaster of Ruinart, Frédéric Panaiotis, they touch on the distinctiveness of Sillery Chardonnay (3:25)–as well as that of nearby Puisieulx and Verzenay–compared to the Côte des Blancs. These Montagne de Reims Chardonnays, grown in prime Pinot noir territory, have more depth and body which puts their own unique imprint on a wine.
BTW, if you want even more hard-core geeking, check out my Geek Notes on GuildSomm’s interviews with Ruinart’s Frédéric Panaiotis about the process of Champagne and follow up.
While not officially recognized as a sub-region of the Montagne de Reims, sandwiched between the northern & southern Grand Crus is a cluster of four premier cru villages known as the Perle Blanche.
Like the Côte des Blancs (as well as Côte de Beaune), the Perle Blanche vineyards face east and southeast. Here they catch the gentle morning sun before the heat of the day. While there is a deep bed of chalk throughout the Montagne de Reims, its influences are felt more keenly in the very thin topsoils of these premier crus. Trépail and Villers-Marmery particularly stand out with more than 90% of their vineyards (nearly 100% in Villers-Marmery) turned over to Chardonnay grapes that are highly prized by producers such as David Léclapart, Pehu-Simonet and Deutz.
The vlogger, My Man in Champagne, featured David Pehu in an interview (1:54) among his vines in Villers-Marmery. This will give you a good feel for the Perle Blanche.
Pinot Meunier is such an underrated grape variety in Champagne even though it plays an important role in many of Champagne’s most successful non-vintage blends–most notably Krug’s Grande Cuvée and Moët’s Brut Imperial (up to 40% some releases). The calling card of this grape is its ability to bud late but ripen early. This helps it escape the viticultural hazards of bud-killing springtime frost as well as diluting harvest rains.
However, climate change and warmer vintages are stirring up concerns that maybe Meunier ripens a little too early. While blocking MLF may help to retain freshness, it’s likely that the sites with north-facing slopes that have a prolonged growing season will become even more treasured for Pinot Meunier.
Vineyards in Chigny-les-Roses in the northwestern part of the Grande Montagne.
In the Grande Montagne de Reims, Meunier country starts just west of the Grand Cru village of Mailly with the notable premier cru of Ludes. The grape becomes even more important, accounting for almost 60% of plantings, in fellow 1ers Chigny-les-Roses and Trois-Puits.
While these villages don’t often show up on labels, their vineyards (and Meunier) are highly valued by large Champagne houses. Among them, notable names such as Cattier (Armand de Brignac/Ace of Spades), Canard-Duchêne, Laurent-Perrier and Taittinger.
Just a little southwest (heading towards the Vallée de la Marne) is the autre cru village of Germaine. Here Pinot Meunier makes up around 96% of all plantings and is an important source of grapes for Moët & Chandon.
These villages are so under-the-radar that’s it tough to find videos featuring their vineyards.
Instead, I’m going to show you a fun one (1:32) from Benoît Tarlant of Champagne Tarlant. This was filmed in the autre cru village of Œuilly, on the other side of the river from Montagne de Reims in the Vallée de la Marne Rive Gauche.
We’ll talk about the Vallée de la Marne in part II of this series. The north-facing slopes of the Rive Gauche in this frost-prone valley is a natural home for Pinot Meunier. What I love about this video is that you can see how tiny Meunier clusters are. It also gives great insights into what a stressful vintage 2012 was.
Massif de Saint-Thierry
The most northern vineyards in all of Champagne are located northwest of the city of Reims. This is another area of prime Pinot Meunier real estate. The grape makes up around 54% of plantings, followed by Pinot noir (29%) and Chardonnay (17%).
Even the Massif de Saint-Thierry’s most well-known village, the autre cru Merfy, is paced by Pinot Meunier leading the pack with 45% of plantings–trailed by Pinot noir (35%) and Chardonnay (20%). Here the acclaimed grower-producer Chartogne-Taillet makes several highly regarded Champagnes including the vineyard-designated Les Alliées made from 100% old-vine Meunier.
However, the true “heart” of Meunier country in the Montagne Reims is a little further west. Here you’ll find the river valleys of the Vesle et Ardre and the hills of the Petite Montagne. Across this entire region, Meunier holds sway–representing 61% of plantings.
Like the Vallée de la Marne, early spring frost is an issue. Similarly, you tend to see the proportion of Pinot Meunier increase the more west that you go. The grape reaches its apex in the westernmost vineyards of the Vallée de l’Ardre. Also, as in the Massif de Saint-Thierry and Marne Valley, sand plays a considerable role in the terroir.
Les Béguines from Jérôme Prévost’s La Closerie. Such a bloody gorgeous wine. Definitely one of the best Champagnes that I’ve ever had.
The only village of the Vesle et Ardre and Petite Montagne where Pinot noir has any sort of stronghold is the premier cru of Écueil. Planted to 76% Pinot noir, this village is an important source for the houses of Frédéric Savart and Nicolas Maillart.
A common denominator among most of these villages is the prevalence of north and north-east facing slopes.
This is true with the most notable village of the Petite Montagne, the autre cru Gueux. Pinot Meunier-dominant (84.5%), followed by Pinot noir (11.7%) and Chardonnay (3.8%), Gueux is the home of Jérôme Prévost’s La Closerie and his Les Béguines vineyard.
Prévost’s Les Béguines cuvée, almost entirely Meunier (some releases will have a tiny amount Pinot gris or Chardonnay blended in), is widely credited with reigniting interest in the grape variety. It’s certainly a wine that everyone should have on their “Must-Try” list.
We’ll wrap up our overview of the exceptions to Pinot noir’s dominance in the Montagne de Reims by looking at the area’s most overlooked sub-region–the Monts de Berru. This tiny cluster of five villages, located in the hills east of Reims, are the easternmost vineyards of the Montagne de Reims. Only a few villages in the Côte des Bar and the Vitryat sub-region of the Côte des Blancs extend further east.
Located just east of Reims, the Monts de Berru saw a lot of fighting during WWI, particularly during the Battle of the Hills. The 5 Champagne villages are highlighted on this map which notes French offensive gains during April & May of 1917.
Now given their northern and easterly location, you can probably guess which grape variety thrives here.
Across the 5 villages, it represents 92% of all plantings with the autre crus of Pontfaverger-Moronvilliers (100% Chardonnay going almost entirely to Moët & Chandon) and Nogent-l’Abbesse (99% of plantings) virtually exclusive to Chardonnay.
The one outlier is the north-eastern village of Selles that is planted to 94% Pinot Meunier and 6% Chardonnay. Here, too, Moët & Chandon seems to be the most significant purchaser of grapes from this autre cru.
Another Champagne house that source grapes from the Monts de Berru is Pommery as well as Pol Roger which owns vineyards in the namesake village of Berru.
Don’t fret. The next few parts in this series covering the exceptions of the Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs and the Aube won’t be nearly as long. However, the Montagne de Reims was the best starting point to reframe folk’s thinking about the regions of Champagne.
It’s entirely too simplistic to say that the Montagne de Reims is “known for Pinot noir.” This is particularly true when there are notable Grand Cru and premier cru villages that stand out for other varieties.
The biggest reason why this “Butter Knife Knowledge” of Champagne is so pervasive is that, historically, we don’t really think that deeply about the terroir of Champagne. This is largely because the big négociant brands of Champagnes–which dominate the market–rarely talk about terroir at all.
We’re so used to thinking of Champagne as a blend of dozens, if not hundreds of villages, that it doesn’t seem like it’s worth the bother. On back labels and tech sheets, the best you ever get from most large houses is that the Chardonnay came from the Côte des Blancs, the Pinot noir from the Montagne de Reims and the Meunier from the Vallée de la Marne.
Though only from an “autre cru”, the wines of Chartogne-Taillet exploring the terroir of Merfy shows that the Champagnes of the Massif de Saint-Thierry can stand up to any Grand Cru.
That’s a big reason why I wanted to do this series. I wanted to highlight the villages with distinctive terroir that makes them exceptions to the superlatives.
But beyond just reading about these exceptions, you need to taste. I highly encourage Champagne lovers to explore the many growers who produce single cru and single-vineyard wines. This is another area where Tomas’s wine blog is such a fantastic resource. Near the bottom of each village profile, Tomas lists many of the growers and négociants who produce wine from each place.
The Christie’s Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine will also list the villages of most growers in their producer profiles. Additionally, they note many individual growers that tend to be the most expressive of a cru’s terroir. These are all tremendous tools to help sharpen your understanding of Champagne.
The wine world has a wicked way of promoting FOMO–a fear of missing out.
From the luxury end, there are cult wines and trophy bottles. In years past, score hounds would scavenge the shelves looking for highly-rated gems before they sold out.
Now for wine geeks and wanderlust Millennials, the entire world of wine is a temptress. But what we fear missing out on is not what the pack is gobbling up. Instead, our minds quiver at the thought of missing out on what’s new and exciting by settling for what’s old and boring.
Why feel content with the same ole Cab and Chardonnay when you could have Touriga Nacional and Grenache blanc?
Yeah, Champagne is charming. Prosecco is perfect for patio sipping. But that’s what everyone else is drinking. It’s what you can find in every wine shop. You can’t have FOMO if there is nothing to be missed.
And that’s the dirty little secret of the human psyche.
Despite the real repercussions when we let FOMO reach anxiety levels, we still crave it. We still crave the thrill of the hunt. But how much thrill is there in shooting ducks in a basket?
In the world of sparkling wine, finding premium Aussie bubbles is a tough unicorn to bag. Unless, of course, you’re one of the 25 million people who call Australia home.
Now yes, we’ll get some sparkling Shiraz exported.
Actually Australia is home to many unicorns. If only I could’ve found a way to keep these frozen for the plane ride home.
Though the ones that make their way to the US tend to be mass-produced and underwhelming. Of course, there is the ubiquitous YellowTail, which has several sparklers in their line up. However, that’s basically the “Fosters of Australian wine”–a well-known ambassador but not really a benchmark.
But only around a fifth of Australia’s sparkling wine production gets exported. That means you need to go down under to even get a hint of what the rest of the world is missing out on. Luckily, I got such a chance this past October during the Wine Media Conference.
There, in both the Hunter Valley and neighboring Mudgee, I was able to try several sparkling wines that I could never find in the States. But I barely scratched the surface. Even spending extra time in Sydney, I found that the highly regarded Tasmanian sparklers were surprisingly difficult to find.
I’ll share my thoughts on many of the sparklers I tasted below. But first a little geeking about Australian sparkling wine.
Australia isn’t an “emerging” sparkling wine producer.
I’d imagine it was quite the scandal having a non-French sparkler served to the French emperor.
Up in the Hunter Valley, James King began producing sparkling wine around 1843. King’s wines would receive great international acclaim–doing particularly well at the 1855 Paris Exposition. Yes, that1855 Paris Exposition. At the end of the event, King’s sparkling Australian wine was selected as one of only two wines that were served to Napoleon III at the closing banquet.
It’s hard to know exactly what these first Aussie sparklers were. King, in particular, was noted for the quality of his Shepherd’s Riesling (Semillon). However, he also had Pinot noir in his vineyard as well.
These early Australian sparklers were made using the traditional method of Champagne.
The 20th century saw more innovation in sparkling wine techniques with producers experimenting with a “twist” on the Champagne method known as the Transfer Method or transvasage. (We’ll geek out more about that down below) The exact date and who was the first to pioneer this technique in Australia is not known though Minchinbury helped popularize its use.
In 1939, Frederick Thomson started using carbonation (or the “soda method”) to make his Claretta sparkling fizz. We should note that while many cheap sparkling wines (including some so-called “California Champagnes”) are made with added carbonation, in Australia these wines can’t be labeled as “sparkling wines.” Only wines that get their effervescence through fermentation (either in a bottle or tank) can use the term.
Speaking of tanks, adoption of the Charmat method took hold in the late 1950s–beginning with Orlando’s Barossa Pearl Fizz. Today, the tank method is gaining in prominence–especially with the strong sparkling Moscato and “Prosecco” market in Australia. (More on both of those a little later too.)
The 1980s saw a spark of French interest in Australia.
Much like in California, the big Champagne houses took an interest in Australia’s growing sparkling wine industry. In 1985, both Roederer and Moët & Chandon invested in new estates.
Roederer help found Heemskerk as a joint-venture in Pipers Brook, Tasmania. But eventually Roederer moved on from the project–selling back their interest in the estate in 1994.
Throughout Australia, sparkling wine accounts for around 6% of production. In Tasmania, that number jumps up to 30%.
Moët’s Domaine Chandon at Green Point in the Yarra Valley of Victoria, though, saw immediate success thanks to the work of the legendary Tony Jordan–who sadly passed away earlier this year.
Like Roederer, LVMH also looked to Tasmania as a potential spot for sparkling wine production. However, they wanted a location more prime for tourism and cellar door sales.
Bollinger was also briefly a player in Australia’s sparkling wine scene through their partnership with Brian Croser in Petaluma. However, the hostile takeover of that brand by the Lion Nathan corporation in 2001 seemed to have ended Bollinger’s involvement.
Today, except for Domaine Chandon (and Pernod Ricard’s Jacob’s Creek), most all of the Australian sparkling wine industry is wholly domestic. This makes me wonder if this is why Aussie sparklers are so hard to find outside of Australia?
Even the most prominent players like Treasury Wine Estates (Wolf Blass, Penfolds, Seppelt, Heemskirk, Yellowglen) and Accolade Wine (Banrock Station, Arras, Bay of Fires, Hardy’s, Croser, Yarra Burn) have their origins as Australian conglomerates before they gained an international presence.
Understanding this is a big part of understanding Australian sparkling wine. Like the traditional method, fermentation happens in the bottle. However, it’s not happening in the bottle that you’re taking home. Instead, after secondary fermentation and aging, the wine is emptied into a pressurized tank at around 0°C where the lees are filtered out. Then the sparkler is bottled anew with its dosage.
The Champenois themselves use transvasage for 187ml airline splits and half bottles as well as large format Champagnes starting with double magnum (3L Jeroboam) in size. This is because these odd formats would be difficult to riddle without excessive breakage.
The Australians were keen to adopt the labor and cost-saving benefits of the transfer method and it’s the most widely used technique. It allows wineries to increase efficiency without sacrificing the quality character of autolysis. Ed Carr of Accolade Wines noted in Christie’s that the difference is as much as $30-40 AUD per case compared to traditional riddling. Plus, winemakers can do one last “tweaking” (such as SO2 and acidity adjustments) before final bottling.
However, many boutique producers stick to using the traditional (instead of transfer) method. These bottles are labeled stating “Methode champenoise,”“Methode traditionnelle” or simply “Fermented in this bottle.”
The sparklers that are made using the transfer method are more likely to state that they are “Bottled Fermented” or “Fermented in the bottle.”
Australian Moscato & “Prosecco”
As elsewhere in the world, Australia has had its own “Moscato Boom.”
Now usually Moscato is associated with the Moscato bianco grape of Asti (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains). However, in Australia, the term is used to refer to the whole Muscat family when the wine is made in a light, sweet style with low alcohol. So a bottle of sparkling Australian Moscato can be made from Moscato bianco, Muscat of Alexandria, Orange Muscat, Moscato Giallo or a blend of multiple Muscats.
The King Valley in north-east Victoria has a strong Italian heritage. The Glera/Prosecco grape thrives in the cooler southern end of the valley with vineyards planted at higher altitudes.
Australian Prosecco is also apparently a big deal–though I didn’t personally encounter any bottles on my trip. The first Australian Prosecco was made by Otto Dal Zotto in King Valley (or “Victoria’s little Italy”) in 2004. The success of that wine and others caught the attention and ire of producers in the Veneto.
This led Italian authorities to take some dramatic steps in 2009. First, they petitioned the EU to change the grape’s name from Prosecco to Glera. Then they expanded the DOC to the province of Trieste, in Friuli Venezia Giulia, where there is a village named Prosecco. This gave them the justification to claim the entire region as a protected geographical area.
Obviously Australian wine producers balked at this with the conflict between the two parties still ongoing. But while Australian Prosecco can be sold domestically, none of these wines can be exported into the EU.
A few of the Australian Sparklers I’ve enjoyed this year.
Amanda and Janet de Beaurepaire at their family estate. Amanda’s parents, Janet and Richard, started planting their 53 hectares of vineyards in 1998.
De Beaurepaire 2018 Blanchefleur Blanc de Blancs – $45 AUD (Purchased additional bottles at winery)
I’ve got a future article planned about the intriguing story of the De Beaurepaire family and the genuinely unique terroir they’ve found in Rylstone, southeast of Mudgee. The family’s name and ancestors come from the Burgundian village of Beaurepaire-en-Bresse in the Côte Chalonnaise. So it’s no surprise that their wines have a French flair to them.
It’s also no surprise that their 2018 Blanchefleur was quite Champagne-like. Indeed, it was the best sparkling wine I had on the trip. A 100% Chardonnay with 15 months on the lees, this wine had incredible minerality. Coupled with the vibrant, pure fruit, it screamed of being something from the Cote de Blancs. I’m not kidding when I say that this bottle would stack up well to a quality NV from a grower-producer like Franck Bonville, Pierre Peters, De Sousa or Pertois-Moriset.
Peter Drayton 2018 Wildstreak sparkling Semillon-Chardonnay – $30 AUD
I had this at an Around the Hermitage dinner that featured many gorgeous wines. But the folks at the Around Hermitage Association started things right with this 80% Semillon/20% Chardonnay blend that spent 18 months on the lees. Hard to say if this was transfer method of not. However, the toasty autolysis notes were quite evident with biscuit and honeycomb. Very Chenin like. In a blind tasting, I’d probably confuse it with good quality sparkling Vouvray from a producer like Francois Pinon or Huet.
BTW, the Around Hermitage folks made a fun short video about the dinner (3:20) which features an interview with me.
With a blend of 63% Chardonnay, 19% Pinot noir and 18% Pinot Meunier, this is another bottle that is following the traditional method and recipe. Sourced from the cool-climate Orange region of NSW, which uses altitude (930m above sea level) to temper the heat, this wine spent almost two years aging on the lees. Lots of toasted brioche with racy citrus notes. It feels like it has a higher Brut dosage in the 10-11 g/l range. But it’s well balanced with ample acidity to keep it fresh.
Hollydene Estate 2008 Juul Blanc de Blancs – $69 AUD
Hollydene Estate Winery in Jerrys Plains is about an hour northwest of the heart of the Hunter Valley in Pokolbin.
Made in the traditional method, this wine is 100% Chardonnay sourced from the cool maritime climate of the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. It spent over 60 months aging on the lees and, whoa nelly, you can tell. Hugely autolytic with yeasty, doughy notes to go with the lemon custard creaminess of the fruit.
Peterson House 2007 Sparkling Semillon – ($60 AUD)
If you love sparkling wine, make sure you book a trip to Peterson House. Each year they release more than 30 different sparklers. Beyond just the traditional varieties, they push the envelope in creating exciting bubbles. You’ll find sparklers made from Verdelho, Pinot gris and Sauvignon blanc as well as Chambourcin, Petit Verdot and Malbec.
I’m generally not a fan of overly tertiary sparklers. But this wine made a big impression on me during the conference.
Wow! A vintage sparkling traditional method Semillon that spent 11 years on lees. 11 years!
Robert Stein NV Sparkling Chardonnay and Pinot noir – $25 AUD
I raved about the Robert Stein Rieslings in my recent post, Send Roger Morris to Mudgee. But there are so many good reasons to put this winery (and the Pipeclay Pumphouse restaurant) on a “Must Visit Bucket List”. The entire line up is stocked with winners–including this Charmat method sparkler.
At first taste, I had this pegged for transfer method. It wasn’t as aggressively bubbly and frothy as many tank method sparklers can be. However, the considerable apple blossom aromatics should have tipped me off. If this ever made its way to the US for less than $30, I’d recommend buying this by the case.
Gilbert 2019 Pet Nat Rose – $25 AUD (Purchased additional bottles at winery)
Gilbert’s Sangio Pet-Nat was just bloody fantastic. I wish I brought more than one bottle home.
It’s always trippy to have a wine from the same year (2019)–especially a sparkler. Gilbert harvests the Sangiovese in February and bottles before the first fermentation is completed each year. Released in July, this wine was surprisingly dry and is teetering on the Brut line with 12.5 g/l residual sugar. Very clean with no funky flavors, this wine had a beautiful purity of fruit–cherry, strawberries, watermelon and even blood orange.
The Christie’s Encyclopedia notes that Domaine Chandon shot out of the gate partly because of the lessons that Tony Jordan learned at Napa’s Domaine Chandon. In particular, Jordan was well aware of the challenges of dealing with grapes from warm climates. In Australia, Domaine Chandon casts an extensive net by sourcing from cool-climate vineyards in both Victoria and Tasmania. They have vineyards not only in the Yarra Valley but also in the King Valley, Macedon Ranges, Whitlands Plateau and Strathbogie Ranges as well as the Coal River Valley region in Tasmania.
For the fruit that comes from Tasmania, Domaine Chandon follows the tact used by many Australian sparkling wine producers. They press the fruit at local press houses in Tasmania before transporting the must in refrigerated containers to the mainland. This helps maintain freshness and ward off spoilage organisms.
The 2013 vintage Brut is 47% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot noir and 3% Pinot Meunier. As in Champagne, Domaine Chandon ages their vintage sparklers at least 36 months on the lees. Fully fermented in the same bottle, it tastes very similar to other Moët & Chandon sparklers with rich, creamy mouthfeel holding up the ripe apple and citrus notes. An enjoyable bottle priced in line with its peers.
Bleasdale Sparkling Shiraz (tasted in London at the WSET School) – Around 15 euros
I’ll admit that the color of sparkling Shiraz is always very striking.
Admittedly I’m still on the search for a genuinely impressive sparkling Shiraz. But this Bleasdale came close. Like the Paringa I’ve reviewed previously, it’s sweeter than my ideal though I get the winemaking reasons behind that.
Sparkling red wines are notoriously tricky to pull off because you have to balance the tannins. This is why many of these wines often have more than 20 g/l sugar.
Most sparkling reds come from the same regions as premium Australian still reds. Think places like the Barossa, McLaren Vale or the Langhorne Creek (Bleasdale). Interestingly, producers will harvest these grapes at the same time as those for still reds wine. Instead of harvesting early to retain acidity, producers want the extended hang time for riper tannins.
However, these sparklers sorely need acidity to balance both the intense fruit and sweetness. While secondary fermentation does add carbonic acid, I suspect that these wines are routinely acidified.
Still, this Bleasdale had enough balance of acid to go with the dark plum and delicate oak spice. That got me wondering how well this would pair with BBQ pulled pork.
Or, if I’m brave, maybe I’d pair some of these Aussie sparkling unicorns with steak de cheval.
Georges Vesselle was an icon of the Grand Cru village of Bouzy, having served as its mayor for 25 years as well as vineyard manager for Perrier-Jouët, Mumm and Heidsieck Monopole.
Taking over the family estate in 1951, Vesselle used his label to focus on single village, Grand Cru wine. Today the house is run by his sons, Bruno and Eric, who tend to the family’s 17 ha (42 acres) of vines.
Located on the south end of the Montagne de Reims, the Grand Cru village of Bouzy is noted for its Pinot noir, which makes up almost 88% of plantings. The warm south-facing slopes produces riper fruit with Bouzy being a major producer of still red Coteaux Champenois as well.
A powerful presence and weighty mouthfeel characterize Bouzy Pinot. Champagne houses that prominently feature Bouzy fruit include Paul Bara, Bollinger, André Clouet, Duval-Leroy, Benoît Lahaye, Moët & Chandon, Mumm, Pierre Paillard, Pol Roger, Camille Savès and Taittinger. In addition, many houses use red wine from Bouzy to add color to their roses.
The 2009 Brut is 90% Pinot noir and 10% Chardonnay with 5 years aging on lees. Bottled with 8 g/l dosage.
The roasted almond and pastry elements add complexity to this excellent Champagne.
High-intensity nose–lots of yellow fruits like Golden Delicious apple and lemons. Noticeable autolytic and tertiary notes of pastry dough and honey-roasted almonds.
On the palate, those fruit notes carry through and are very ripe. The high-acidity keeps the full-bodied and creamy mouthfeel well balanced. Long finish lingers on the tertiary almonds.
In France, this 2009 Georges Vesselle is around 40-45 euros. However, in the US, it’s unfortunately closer to $90. (Before extra tariffs!)
So while it’s very well made with subtle complexity, it’s hard to say that this is a great deal. But if you can get it for $60-70, grab it.
A few quick thoughts on the 2013 Frank Family Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine from Carneros.
While today Frank Family is known for big Rutherford Cabs and buttery Chardonnays, its origins were actually sparkling wine. In 1992, Rich Frank, a Disney exec, bought Hanns Kornell Champagne Cellars with Koerner Rombauer.
Using the methode champenoise, Kornell helped innovate many new sparkling wine techniques in California. His wines earned high praise with Marilyn Monroe reportedly being a fan.
Rich Frank later bought out Rombauer’s interest in the winery and changed the name to Frank Family Vineyards. To honor Kornell, they kept producing sparkling wines.
The 2013 Blanc de Blancs is 100% Chardonnay sourced from Carneros. The wine spent 3 years aging on the lees with 500 cases made.
Lots of ripe lemon notes in this wine.
Medium-plus intensity nose. Very citrusy with ripe lemon notes coupled with floral orange blossom. Apples with a toasted pastry element follow.
The palate echos the nose but also introduces an intriguing spiced pear note that adds more depth. Creamy mouthfeel enhances the toasted element and “California Chard” feel of the wine.
Medium-plus body. The medium-plus acidity is enough to feel balanced with the dosage (likely in the 10-11 g/l range). But it could use a little more zip of freshness. Long finish lingers more on the tree fruit, especially the spiced pear.
For around $45-55, it’s a decent value. It certainly offers more complexity and depth than many of your typical mass-market Champagnes in that range like Veuve Clicquot & Moet.
But it’s not going to knock your socks off and there are certainly better values out there. I also got a chance to try their 2011 Lady Edythe Reserve Brut (aged for 6 years on lees), which sells at the winery for $110. That was very tasty as well, but not that drastically different from the Blanc de Blancs.
In 2000, Xavier Gonet started the Champagne house with his wife, Julie Médeville, in the premier cru village of Bisseuil in the Grande Vallée de la Marne.
Gonet hails from the notable Champagne family of Philippe Gonet in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger with that house now run by Xavier’s siblings. Médeville comes from Bordeaux where her family owns several estates in Graves and Sauternes including Ch. Respide Médeville, Ch. Les Justice and Ch. Gilette.
Gonet-Médeville farms all 10 ha (25 acres) of their vineyards sustainably. The vines are located entirely in premier and Grand Cru villages and include the Champ Alouette and Louvière vineyards in Le Mesnil as well as La Grande Ruelle in Ambonnay.
For many years, Champagne Gonet-Médeville has been brought to the US by legendary importer Martine Saunier. The 2014 documentary film, A Year in Champagne, features Xavier Gonet prominently along with other Saunier clients–Stephane Coquilette, Saint-Chamant and Diebolt-Vallois.
The Extra Brut Rosé is 70% Chardonnay and 27% Pinot noir with 3% still red wine added for color. The wine was aged for seven months after primary fermentation in neutral oak barrels before bottling. Gonet then matured the wine three years on its lees with around 8000 bottles produced.
The rich pomegranate adds some savory complexity to this Champagne.
Medium-plus intensity nose. Tart cherries and pomegranate with an interesting ginger spice note.
On the palate, the red fruits carry through and add some ruby red grapefruit as well. Here, the spice morphs into a toasty gingerbread note. The medium-weight of the fruit balances well with the silky mousse. But what’s most remarkable is the long saline/minerally finish that is almost lip-smacking.
This is a charming Rosé that’s very solid for around $65-75 retail. The restaurant I enjoyed this at had it marked up to $130 which is still a good value for its quality.
BTW, if you want to check out the trailer for A Year in Champagne, I highly recommend it!
A few quick thoughts on the 2007 Vilmart & Cie Coeur de Cuvee Champagne.
Laurent Champs is the 5th generation vigneron running his family’s estate in the premier cru village of Rilly-la-Montagne in the Montagne de Reims. Despite this region being world-renown for Pinot noir, the 11 ha (27 acres) of Vilmart are majority Chardonnay.
While his father, René, experimented with biodynamics, Laurent practices sustainable and organic viticulture with AMPELOS certification.
The Coeur de Cuvee is 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot noir sourced from a single parcel of 55+ year-old vines. Vilmart uses only the first 14 hl of pressing (the “coeur/heart”) instead of the full 20.5 hl allowed. The vin clair is aged in white Burgundy barrels for ten months with no malolactic fermentation taking place.
The wine then spends six years aging on the lees before being disgorged with a 7-9 g/l dosage. For the 2007, only 150 cases were imported into the US.
Lots of apple pastry action going on with this Champagne with some almond marzipan making as well.
High-intensity nose–lots of apple pastry and vanilla notes with racy citrus peel. A little air lets a white floral note come out that’s a mix of lilies and acacia.
On the palate, those pastry notes come through and are very creamy with an almond marzipan note. Noticeable oak spice is also present, but it complements the spice pear that emerges adding another layer of depth. Very full-bodied mouthfeel but ample acidity keeps it balanced and fresh. Long finish ends with the oak spice and the creamy marzipan.
This is a bloody gorgeous Champagne that is worth every penny as a prestige cuvee in the $140-150 range. Truthfully, it blows many more expensive bottles out of the water.
However, I do suspect with the strong lingering oak notes–even after 10+ years in the bottle–that younger vintages (like their current 2011 release) will be more overtly oaky. While this 2007 was in a beautiful spot right now, this may be a Champagne worth focusing more on older vintages.