Tag Archives: Epernay

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.

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.

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.

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)

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.

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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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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60 Second Wine Reviews – De Venoge Princes Blanc de Noirs

Some quick thoughts on the De Venoge Princes Blanc de Noirs.

The Geekery

The house of De Venoge was founded in Epernay by Swiss winemaker Henri-Marc de Venoge in 1837. The house is most noted for its Tête de Cuvée Louis XV which was made to commemorate the French king’s May 25th, 1728 dictate that finally allowed Champagne to be bottled in Champagne instead of being shipped in barrels and bottled at its designation.

As a top prestige cuvée, the Louis XV is only made in exceptional vintages and released in very limited quantities after at least 10 years aging on the lees. The wine is usually in the $170-260 range.

The fruit from the vintages that are still very good (and, indeed, still being used for vintage releases of Dom Perignon and Cristal) but not quite Louis XV-level, gets declassified down to the houses’ other Champagnes such as the Princes line. There are three wines in this tier of non-vintage Champagnes– a Rosé, a Blanc de Blancs and a Blanc de Noirs.

The Princes Blanc de Noirs is made of 100% Pinot noir sourced from Grand Cru and Premier Crus in the Montagne de Reims. It spends at least 3 years aging on the lees before it is bottled with a 6-7 g/l dosage.

The Wine

High aromatics with lots of red fruits on the nose–raspberry, plum and red apple peel. There is also a strong floral note but it is a mix of white and darker flowers. A true bouquet.

On the palate, the mousse is silky but with a lot of power and weight. The acidity is still lively which adds a freshness but power is clearly the dominant profile. The red berry fruits carry through to the palate with a little apple pie pastry.

Picture by Arnaud 25 on Wikimedia Commons released under  CC-BY-SA-4.0

But if you want to splurge for the real deal, by all means enjoy!


The Verdict

As a “baby Louis XV”, it is an exceptional value at around $80 for a Champagne that delivers top shelf quality that out perform many far more expensive bottles. Indeed, this particular bottle of Princes Blanc de Noirs was easily outdrinking the $130-150 bottle of 2006 Dom Perignon.

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