Tag Archives: LVMH

The Hunt for Aussie Bubbles

Note: Unless otherwise stated, all the wines reviewed here were tried as samples during the 2019 Wine Media Conference in the Hunter Valley and Mudgee region.

Kangaroo crossing sign

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?

No, what we crave are the unicorns out in the wild.

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.

Golden Gaytime ice

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.

Occasionally, some internet sleuthing can find a merchant offering mid-size producers like Jansz from Tasmania. (Though, ugh, their website!)

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.

Bubbles were produced on the island of Tasmania nearly 2 decades before Nicholas Longworth crafted the first American sparkling wine in 1842.

As Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan note in the Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine (one of the five essential books on sparkling wine), an English immigrant, Mr. Brighton, produced Australia’s first sparkling wine in Tasmania back in 1826.

Napoleon III painting uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under the public domain

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, that 1855 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.

Chardonnay harvest in Tasmania photo by Mark Smith. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

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.

The Transfer Method

Diagram from Wine Australia presentation

Diagram from Wine Australia’s “Australian Wine Discovered” presentation.

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.

King Valley photo by Mattinbgn. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

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

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.

Logan 2016 Vintage ‘M’ Cuvee – ($40 AUD)

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 Winery

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.

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 Pet Nat

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.

Domaine Chandon 2013 Vintage Brut (purchased at a restaurant) – Around $30 AUD retail.

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
Bleasdale Sparkling Shiraz

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.

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The Lost Wine Cellar of Notre Dame?

Like most of the world, I’ve spent the last 24 hours riveted by the tragedy of Notre Dame.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

Having just moved to Paris, I heard the news while having dinner at a bistro north of the cathedral. Amidst the murmur of fellow diners’ evening conversations in French, there was a sudden interruption of punctuated English, “Notre Dame is burning!”

Reading the reactions that are emerging today as the embers cool, I came across an intriguing claim. Many stories recounting the long history of Notre Dame describe it as a converted wine cellar during the French Revolution.

What? Is this some cool secret wine history of Notre Dame?

Not quite.

While my heart fluttered at the idea, it didn’t take long before my old Wikipedian instincts kicked in. Even though news sites like USA Today, MSN and Live Science are generally considered reliable sources, they’re secondary sources regurgitating information that the author heard elsewhere. Like a game of telephone, the message can get muddled.

After noticing that the Notre Dame de Paris’ official website doesn’t make any mention of this secret wine history, I decided to investigate a little further.

Ideally, the best place to verify is by going to primary sources but my lack of familiarity with French limits that. Therefore I focused on finding reliable secondary sources written before our possible game of telephone started.

So what did I uncover?
Photo of public use painting taken by Dennis Jarvis Coronation of Napoleon, CC BY-SA 2.0,

The rise of Napoleon signaled the return of Notre Dame back to its original purpose as a church. It was also the site of his coronation.
Interestingly, Napoleon’s coronation did not involve the sacrament of communion and consecration with wine.

While I did find one 2012 blog post that mentioned the Notre Dame wine cellar (or “wine warehouse”), most of the sources I found on this period of Notre Dame’s history talk of the great Cathedral being confiscated from the church and turned into a secular temple dedicated to the “Goddess of Reason”.

Many sources do describe Notre Dame being used as a warehouse, but it seems like it was mostly for food and general purpose than necessarily being a wine cellar.

Now the French have historically viewed wine as food. I suspect that this connotation is where our little game of telephone got its start. But even the French don’t live off of wine alone, so it’s far more likely that wine was just a small part of the various goods and supplies stored in Revolutionary-era Notre Dame.

But even though wine wasn’t a big part of Notre Dame’s past, it will be a part of her future.

One of the bright spots after the tragedy is the spirit of cooperation and determination to rebuild this important symbol of France. Hundreds of millions of euros have been pledged to help with the efforts–with a good chunk of that coming from notable figures in the wine industry.

Photo By Jérémy Barande / Ecole polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Bernard Arnault, owner of LVMH.

LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) and the Arnault family announced that they were donating 200 million euros. Among the very many notable wine brands of LVMH include Clos des Lambrays, Krug, Ruinart, Ch. d’Yquem, Cheval Blanc, Numanthia, Newton Vineyard, Ao Yun, Cloudy Bay, Cape Mentelle, Champagne Mercier, Veuve Clicquot and Dom Pérignon.

François Pinault, who owns Ch. Latour, Clos de Tart, Araujo, Ch. Siaurac and Chateau-Grillet, has pledged 100 million euros.

The owners of Clos Rougeard and Ch. Montrose, Martin and Olivier Bouygues, have pledged 10 million euros.

Even notable cooperage firms have pledged their support.

The Charlois Group, makers of Leroi, Saury and Berthomieu barrels, have pledged their resources to help replace the treasured wood ceiling. This will go a long way towards restoring the 52 acres (21 hectares) of timber that was used to build the original roof.

Despite the devastation, it’s good to know that there is hope. Notre Dame will be rebuilt.

And who knows? Maybe the renovations might sneak in a new wine cellar.

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60 Second Wine Review — Canard-Duchêne Brut

A few quick thoughts on the non-vintage Canard-Duchêne Brut Champagne.

The Geekery
Canard Duchene Champagne

The origins of Canard-Duchêne is a love story. Léonie Duchêne was a winemaker and daughter of a grower in Ludes, a premier cru village in the Montagne de Reims. In 1860, she married the local barrel marker, Victor Canard, convincing him to start a Champagne house together in 1868.

Rather than move to the big cities of Reims and Epernay, Léonie and Victor stayed in Ludes. Their son, Edmond, took over the estate in 1890 and greatly expanded the house’s presence in Russia. He soon acquired the rights to be the official Champagne of Tsar Nicolas II.

The house remained family owned until 1978 when the conglomerate LVMH acquired it. Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan noted in the Christie’s Encyclopedia that Canard-Duchêne then became a “second label” of Veuve Clicquot.

In 2003, LVMH sold the brand to Alain Thiénot who began a long process of renovating the house and vineyards. He brought in Laurent Fédou as cellar master and introduced an organic line of Champagnes.

The non-vintage Brut is a blend of 40% Pinot noir, 40% Pinot Meunier and 20% Chardonnay. Fédou puts the wine through full malolactic, aging it on the lees 23-26 months before bottling with 9 g/l dosage. Around 10,000 cases are imported to the US each year.

The Wine

Photo by Prayitno. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The palate has more going on than the nose with a lemon-custardly mouthfeel.

Medium intensity nose–citrus and floral notes.

On the palate, the citrus notes carry through but become weightier and more pronounced. Coupled with the soft mousse and slight toastiness, the Champagne takes on a lemon custard feel. Lively acidity keeps it fresh and well-balanced with the dosage. The acidity also brings to life some spiced pear that lingers on the moderate finish.

The Verdict

This is a solidly made Champagne for $35-40. The simplicity does remind me a bit of Veuve but with more citrus notes and a drier profile.

It’s not worth going out of your way to find, but it’s an enjoyable glass.

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Geek Notes — The Process of Champagne GuildSomm Podcast

Back in 2013, GuildSomm did a fantastic podcast with Frédéric Panaiotis (39:33) of the Champagne house Ruinart about how Champagne is made. They followed it up with another interview with Panaiotis this year on Champagne (44:54) that also featured Rodolphe Péters of Pierre Péters.

Guildsomm podcast screen

Both shows are chock-full of awesome behind-the-scenes insights about Champagne that are well worth listening to. I’m going to break down the 2013 episode here first and then devote another Geek Notes to the second interview.

But after doing multiple Geek Note reviews of various podcasts (like Grape Radio’s interview with Hubert de Boüard of Ch. Angélus, UK Wine Show episode with Ian D’Agata about Italian wine grapes, Wine For Normal People’s episode on Tuscan wine regions and I’ll Drink To That! interview with Greg Harrington on Washington wine), I realize that I should take a moment to explain the objective of these posts.

Highlighting Learning Tools That I Use

As I mentioned in my post SpitBucket on Social Media, the purpose of my Geek Notes features are to highlight valuable resources for wine students pursuing various certifications.

Wine podcasts are a big focus for me because I think they’re often extremely underutilized. It’s easy for wine students to bury their heads in books and create flash cards. But we shouldn’t discount that nearly a third of individuals are auditory learners. Furthermore, for the 65% who are visual learners, exposing ourselves to audio avenues helps reinforce the material that we’re learning.

However, most people are actually a mix of multiple learning styles so the best approach is to also incorporate kinesthetic (hands-on) learning as well.

This is essentially what I’m doing for myself with these Geek Note reviews of podcasts. I’m primarily a visual learner so I’m always diving into one wine book or another. But when I’m going deep on a topic, I supplement that book learning by listening to related podcasts.

When I come across a podcast with useful information, I go back to listen to it a second time. This time, I take notes. It’s like recording your class lectures back in college. You spend class time actually listening to the instructor and absorbing the material first without distracting scribbling and note taking. But then you solidify the material in your mind by going back to the recorded lecture for notes.

A little bit of a review element.

While I’ll include timestamps, I don’t really intend for these posts to be transcriptions. If I’m doing a review of a podcast, it’s because I feel that it is sincerely worth listening to. There will often be contextual tidbits and stories featured in these episodes that I won’t mention or fully address. You can get more out of these Geek Notes by checking out the podcasts for yourself after reading these posts.

For newer podcasts like my recent reviews of the Decanted podcast and the Weekly Wine Show, I’ll spend more time giving background about the podcast and why I think they’re worth subscribing to.

In many ways, great wine podcasts are like stellar reference books like The Oxford Companion to Wine, The World Atlas of Wine and The Wine Bible. They provide you with an entire library of wine knowledge that you can digest one entry at a time.

In the next Geek Notes, I’ll give a little background about GuildSomm but, right now, let’s dive right into their podcast interview with Frédéric Panaiotis on making Champagne.

Fun Things I Learned From This Podcast

Photo by Petitpeton. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-self

Statue of Dom Thierry Ruinart (1657-1709) outside the Champagne house Ruinart in Reims.

(0:52) Prior to joining Ruinart, Frédéric Panaiotis also previously worked for Veuve Clicquot, the CIVC as well as the California sparkling wine producer Scharffenberger in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino.

(3:16) Historically, the CIVC used to set one general ban des vendanges for the region. This is the first day that grapes can be legally harvested. Now there are multiple ban des vendanges based not only on the village but also on the individual grape variety. And apparently rootstock in some cases too.

For instance, in the Grand Cru village of Mailly for the 2018 vintage they were allowed to start picking Pinot Meunier on August 25th. However, for Chardonnay and Pinot noir (which the village is most noted for), growers had to wait till August 27th.

I’m curious about the ban des vendanges for other grape varieties–Fromenteau/Pinot gris, Pinot blanc, Petite Meslier and Petite Arbanne. I couldn’t find the answer online but I’ll keep looking.

BTW, August start dates were historically unusual in Champagne but are now becoming much more commonplace. This recent 2018 vintage was the fifth year since 2003 to begin in August.

(5:45) You can get a special allowance from the CIVC to harvest earlier. According to Panaiotis, this may be needed if you are harvesting from a really young vineyard of 3 years or were hit by spring frost which drastically reduced yields. Apparently with less clusters to focus on, the vine will accelerate ripening.

That strikes me a bit curious because wouldn’t the same logic apply to old vines which also produce lower yields. Wouldn’t they also ripen faster? Need to research this more.

Harvest Brix and Ripeness
Photo by ADT Marne. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Chardonnay grapes harvested in the village of Vertus.

(6:21) Panaiotis notes that the Champenois usually aim to harvest grapes at around 10% potential alcohol which is about 18-19° Brix. Compare this to typical still wine production where producers want to harvest Chardonnay more at 20-23° Brix and Pinot noir around 25-27°. But, keep in mind, the secondary fermentation of Champagne (where sugar and yeast are added) adds more alcohol to the finish wine. Most Champagnes finish with an ABV in the 12-12.5% range.

(8:00) A big distinction that GuildSomm’s Geoff Kruth and Panaiotis note about Champagne is that even at these low brix levels, the grapes are still ripe. Panaiotis gives the example of the 1988 vintage which was picked at many estates at around 9.2% potential alcohol (17.5° Brix) in a year that was a late harvest for Champagne. This vintage is still highly regarded for its richness and longevity. Yet harvesting something at so low of a brix level in most any other wine region would produce wines abundant in green, unripe flavors.

This is a quandary that sparkling wine producers from warmer climates like California and Spain have to deal with because acidity is also at play. Not only is it hard to get desired ripeness with such low brix but you need to harvest your grapes with ample acidity. While improvements in viticulture and planting in cooler vineyard sites have helped, historically producers from warm regions have needed to harvest the grapes at lower ripeness levels in order to have enough acid to make their sparkling wines.

The Controversial 1996 Vintage

(8:55) In contrast to 1988, Panaiotis describes the 1996 as an “unripe” year even though the grapes were harvested at 10.5% potential alcohol (20° Brix). This is intriguing because there is a lot of controversy going on now about the 1996 vintage which Jancis Robinson aptly explains in one of her Financial Times articles.

When the 1996 Champagnes were first released, many Champagne lovers were enthralled. That year was pegged as one of the top vintages of the 20th century. I will admit that, even though I’ve been extremely underwhelmed by their recent offerings, the 1996 Dom Perignon was one of the greatest wines that I’ve tried in my lifetime. But I had that wine soon after release and it seems that as the 1996s across the board have aged, more and more people are re-evaluating how good that vintage really was.

Challenges of Big Houses
Photo by Alberto Vaccaro. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

By law, Champagne grapes have to be harvested whole cluster and by hand.

(9:20) Here Panaiotis talks about the challenges that big houses have versus small growers with harvest–particularly with red grapes like Pinot noir. Because the goal in Champagne most often with Pinot is to make a white wine, time is of the essence as soon as you remove the cluster from the vine. You don’t want any “cold soak” color extraction taking place in the pick bin. With Chardonnay, avoiding oxidation of the juice is also a concern for many houses.

But what do you do when you are a large house whose winery is maybe several miles away from the many vineyards you source from? Well worth listening to see how Ruinart responds to this challenge.

(10:30) Machine harvesting is forbidden in Champagne. Part of the reason is because machine harvesters can only harvest individual berries. They do this by using beater bars to separate the berries from clusters on the vine. If you’re curious, this short (2:18) ad video for a mechanical harvester gives a great inside view into how these harvesters work. Panaiotis thinks that even if someone developed a machine that could somehow harvest grapes whole cluster that it would still probably be outlawed.

Pressing Details
Photo by davitydave. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

A modern bladder press.

(11:54) Panaiotis estimates that among the various presses used in Champagne, about half are modern bladder presses with the rest being the traditional Coquard basket press. Piper-Heidsieck has a quick 1 minute video of the Coquard press in action with Pinot noir. Note how the juice, even with the whole clusters, is already being tinted with color. And, yes, leaves and other MOG often gets thrown into these large batches.

(12:15) In Panaiotis’ opinion, 70-80% of the resulting quality of the wine comes from the pressing process. This is an interesting departure from the opinion that a lot of the quality of Champagne comes from the blending and time aging on the lees. From here he goes into a great description of the different cuts (cuvée and taille) that are separated in the pressing process. To explain this he uses a comparison that you can do in a vineyard while sampling a single grape berry.

(14:47) At Ruinart, Panaiotis likes using the taille for their non-vintage Champagnes. Here these cuts add roundness and fruitiness but there is a trade-off in decreased aging potential. In contrast, Ruinart’s vintage wines are almost all cuvée juice since the lower phenolics in this first cut is less prone to oxidation.

This makes me curious about the pressing philosophy of Champagne houses that value more oxidative styles like Krug.

Fermenting as separate lots or as regional blends

(16:10) When Kruth asks how Champagne producers keep the juice from different villages and vineyards separate, Panaiotis explains some of the logistical problems of that. While it is ideal to keep different villages separate, it may take you several days to receive enough lots from those villages to eventually fill an entire tank. That reality favors blending more regionally–like all the Côte des Blancs villages together.

I suspect this is more of an issue for large Champagne houses who presumably have very large tanks with several thousand liter capacities that need to be filled. Additionally, with so many contract growers there is probably a fair amount of variability in what kind of yield you can expect each year from different villages/vineyards, etc. In contrast, smaller growers who have been tending their own vines for generations probably know more precisely what they are getting and accordingly have smaller tanks that are easier to fill up and keep separate.

Another key point specific to Ruinart is that their house’s style is very reductive. If the tanks aren’t filled quickly, there is a risk of the juice oxidizing before fermentation takes off.

Style Differences

(17:14) At Ruinart, they aim for very clean and neutral flavors in their base wines. Along with wanting to avoid oxidation, they use sulfur on the juice to also knock back wild yeast so that they can inoculate with cultured yeast. Kruth notes that the impact of wild or native ferment produces flavors that get amplified during the secondary fermentation, something Panaiotis wants to avoid at Ruinart.

Lanson champagne

Lanson is another house that has historically avoided malolactic fermentation but has recently been experimenting with MLF on a few lots.

(19:30) Panaiotis likes the round mouthfeel that comes from initiating malolactic fermentation in the Champagnes of Ruinart. This is a stylistic decision relating to different Champagne house styles. Some producers, most notably Gosset, historically avoid malolactic fermentation so they can maintain natural acidity and aging potential. But the trade-off is mouthfeel and softness with even Gosset experimenting with having some batches going through MLF.

(20:24) A very interesting discussion on the different philosophy of using reserve wines in the blends of non-vintage Champagnes. Panaiotis describes the impact of using older versus young reserve wines on the resulting style of Champagne. He notes that Ruinart’s precise style favors using younger reserve wines while houses with a more mature style like Charles Heidsieck prefer using older reserve wines of up to 10 years of age.

Secondary Fermentation Issues

(24:18) Probably my biggest surprise was learning about the issues of calcium tartrates in Champagne. If wineries don’t remove these unstable tartrates via cold stabilization, there will be excessive foaming during disgorgement. Worst, this foaming could happen when the wine is opened by consumers–creating a mess. I always thought it was more about aesthetics with consumers mistaking the tartrate crystals for shards of glass.

(25:47) Another completely new thing I learned was that the actual length of time of the secondary fermentation is about 6 to 8 weeks. I always thought it was much quicker like primary fermentation which usually takes several days to a couple weeks. Panaiotis does note that as soon as 3 days after bottling you can start to see the dead lees collecting in the bottle.

(26:52) Panaiotis reveals that recent studies of the Champagne process is showing that oxygen intake through the crown cap or cork is just as impactful on the resulting flavor of the wine as autolysis is.

Oxidative vs Reductive
Bollinger Grande Annee

Bollinger Champagnes have been traditionally associated with an oxidative style of winemaking.

(28:22) Panaiotis goes into an in-depth discussion of oxidative versus reductive winemaking. He details many of the decisions that he has to make throughout the process to promote Ruinart’s reductive style including the unique technique of jetting. Here winemakers add a little bit of water or nitrogen (and sometimes sulfur) to the wine before corking to promote foaming that pushes out the oxygen. This short video (0:52) is in French but shows the process well.

(31:10) Kruth asks for example of major houses who follow the different styles. Panaiotis notes that along with Ruinart, Laurent Perrier, Mumm, Pierre Gimonnet, Pierre Moncuit and Pierre Peters are on the reductive side while Bollinger, Krug, Jacquesson and Jacques Selosse are on the oxidative side. He also notes that Pinot noir favors the more oxidative style. Interestingly, most of the houses he mentions that favor a reductive style tend to be Chardonnay dominant.

(37:40) Panaiotis notes that the CIVC legally limits how many grapes negociants can buy each year. While he didn’t seem completely certain, he estimates that the limit is a maximum of 30% above the equivalent of your previous year’s sales. I’m guessing the CIVC sets these rules to prevent stockpiling? But there is no law on the amount of land you can own. Another tidbit from Panaiotis, growers can buy up 5% of their grapes and still be considered a grower producer.

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Getting Geeky with the 2000 Krug Clos du Mesnil

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2000 Krug Clos du Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Champagne from the Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.

Krug Clos du Mesnil

While Le Mesnil-sur-Oger is known for multiple outstanding wines like Salon, Pierre Peters’ Les Chètillons, Jacques Selosses’ Les Carelles, Pertois Moriset, Pierre Moncuit, Robert Moncuit, Gimonnet-Gonet, J. L. Vergnon and others, the Krug Clos du Mesnil stands apart as one of the most iconic bottles of Champagne. It also tends to be among the most expensive.

At the end of this post, I’ll let you know if I think it’s worth the money.

The Background

Krug was founded in 1843 by Johann-Joseph Krug. Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan note in their Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine that Krug got his start working for Champagne Jacquesson beginning in 1834.

He eventually married the sister-in-law of Adolphe Jacquesson and rose to second in command of the Champagne house. But instead of staying, he ventured out on his own so that he could put into practice his philosophy of winemaking.

In 1969, his descendants sold the house to the French spirits company Remy-Cointreau but still maintained a vested interest in operations. In 1999, Remy-Cointreau sold it to LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) where it is today part of a vast portfolio of wines that includes Moët & Chandon, Dom Pérignon, Ruinart, Veuve Clicquot and Mercier as well as Clos des Lambrays, Château d’Yquem and Château Cheval Blanc.

However, members of the Krug family are still involved in production with 6th generation Olivier Krug being part of the tasting panel that selects the final blends of all the wines.

While Krug only owns around 50 acre of vines (with 70% of their grapes provided by long-term contract growers & co-operatives), the Champagne house has been steadily converting all their estate vineyards (like Clos du Mesnil) to organic viticulture.

Unique Winemaking
Photo by Tomas er. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The courtyard of Krug’s production facility in Reims with empty oak barrels that have been used for the primary fermentation of their Champagnes.

Krug is notable for conducting the primary fermentation of all its cuvees in 205 liter oak barrels. Tyson Stelzer notes in his Champagne Guide 2018-2019 that Krug buys all of their barrels new and then keeps them for up to 50 years. Sourced from Seguin Moreau and Taransaud, the average age of the house’s 4000+ barrels is around 20 years.

When the new barrels arrive they are “seasoned” for 3 years with the juice from the second and third pressing. This wine never makes it into any Krug Champagne and is instead sold off for distillation. All together the wine spends only a few weeks in oak due to Krug’s preference for warm and fast fermentations that produce richer flavors. The wine is then transferred to stainless steel tanks.

Oxidative Style

Like Alfred Gratien, Charles Heidsieck, Selosse, Bernard Bremont, Vilmart and Bollinger, Krug is known for its oxidative style of winemaking with less SO2 used. This style tends to emphasize a more broader palate with rounder flavors compared to the reductive winemaking style of houses like Salon, Taittinger, Laurent Perrier, Franck Bonville, Ruinart and Dom Perignon.

While common for many oxidative-style Champagnes, malolactic fermentation is never intentionally induced at Krug. However, it is also not actively suppressed either so it will happen in some lots. But, in general, Krug Champagnes tend to have high levels of malic acid and low pH which contributes to the wines’ legendary longevity.

The non-vintage Grande Cuvée comprises the bulk of Krug’s 650,000 bottle production with vintage Champagnes like the Clos du Mesnil, Clos du Ambonnay and Brut Vintage making up only around 10% of the house’s Champagnes. This scarcity is a big reason for the Champagnes’ high price tags.

The Production Team

Since 1998, the chef de cave of Krug has been Eric Lebel. He was previously the winemaker at De Venoge where he made the notable 1996 Louis XV Tête de Cuvée. His assistant and heir apparent, Julie Cavil, now personally oversees the production of Clos du Mesnil. She has been with Krug since 2006, joining after previously working harvests at Moët & Chandon.

Krug Champagne display box

The display box that the Clos du Mesnil comes package in.

The 2000 vintage of the Clos du Mesnil spent more than 11 years aging on its lees. Krug only produces the wine in exceptional vintages with around 10,000 to 12,000 bottles made. I could not find the exact dosage for this wine but the house style of Krug tends to be on the lower side with an average of 6 g/l. Another trademark of Krug is to use reserves of the same base wine as part of the finished Champagne’s dosage.

The story of the 1999 Clos du Mesnil is an interesting one. Initially set for release after 12 years of aging on the lees, complete with labels printed, the production team of Krug decided at the last minute not to release the wine at all. Instead the wine was uncorked, the bottles destroyed, and the 1999 Clos du Mesnil blended away into other wines.

The Vineyard

Clos du Mesnil is a tiny 1.84 ha (4.55 acre) vineyard located in the heart of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. A true clos, the vineyard is surrounded by walls that were erected in 1698. An inscription in the clos notes that vines were first planted around this time as well.

Photo by Tomas e. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The Clos du Mesnil vineyard is located practically in the middle of the Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.

In the late 19th century, the plot was owned by Clos Tarin whose winemaker was Marcel Guillaume, brother-in-law to Eugène-Aimé Salon. Intrigued by the Champagne business, Salon joined his brother-in-law at Clos Tarin. As he worked the vines of Clos du Mesnil with Guillaume, Salon was inspired to start his own house.

Krug purchased the Clos du Mesnil vineyard in 1971 with the fruit originally destined for use in the Grande Cuvée. The quality of the 1979 vintage inspired the house to do a dedicated bottling that year which was released in 1986. Peter Liem notes in his book Champagne that Krug’s foray into vineyard-designated Champagne was a game-charger for an industry that has historically focused on blending from multiple sites.

The vineyard is divided into 5 to 6 parcels. With varying vine ages and exposures, harvest usually takes place over multiple days with some vintages taking up to 10 days to complete. In the winery, the lots are further subdivided into around 19 different fermentation. The wine is constantly tasted during the aging process with some lots declassified into different bottlings of Krug or wines destined for other LVMH Champagnes.

Behind the Scenes at Clos du Mesnil

Krug’s YouTube channel has several “behind the scenes” videos including this one published in 2014 about Clos du Mesnil. Featuring enologist Julie Cavil, you get a great feel for the vineyard and how much it is like a tiny garden in the middle of the village. It is believed that the site’s urban location adds to the ripeness of Chardonnay in Clos du Mesnil with heat radiating off the nearby buildings onto the vines.

The short (less than 2 minutes) video below also gives some great insights about the 2000 vintage  as well. That year saw hail storms devastate Le Mesnil-sur-Oger though Clos du Mesnil was spared.

The Wine

High intensity nose. This wine smells like freshly harvested raw honeycomb. There is also a spicy ginger element along with a subtle smokiness. It reminds me of an aged botrytized wine like Sauternes. But not quite as sweet smelling. As the Champagne warmed up a bit in the glass, grilled pear notes emerged.

Photo by Merdal at Turkish Wikipedia. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The raw honeycomb note of this Champagne is very intriguing.

On the palate, the ginger and pear notes carry through and bring a citrus tang as well. The raw honeycomb is also present but takes on more of a baked element like honey shortbread cookies. Racy vibrant acidity makes this Champagne feel very youthful and contributes a streak of salty minerality. Very silky and creamy mousse. Long finish lingers on the smokey, spicy botrytized notes.

The Verdict — Is it worth the money?

Right now the 2000 Krug Clos du Mesnil averages around $994 a bottle with some vintages, like the 1996, topping over $1800.

I had the opportunity to try this bottle as part of the Archetype Tasting series conducted by Medium Plus. Founded by Seattle sommelier Nick Davis, this tasting group allows participants (usually 8 to 10 people) to split the cost of an iconic wine. For this event, attendees contributed $100 each towards the cost of the Krug Clos du Mesnil as well as bringing another fun bottle of Champagne to analyze in an educational setting.

The event was well worth the $100 ($200 with my wife attending) and the add-on bottles to taste the 2000 Krug Clos du Mesnil along with the 2006 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, 2006 Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque, Frederic Savart ‘l’Ouverture’, Suenen Oiry Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, Paul Bara and others Champagnes featured.

But would I spend around a $1000 to get another bottle or splurge for an older vintage?

Nope.

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne

The person who brought this Champagne got a screaming good deal getting this for around $100.

Now I will confess that I was recovering from a cold this evening so my tasting impressions were probably a little skewed. But even at less than 100% I found myself much more wowed by how delicious the 2006 Taittinger Comtes (WS Ave $136) was. While the 2004 Comtes Rosé I had earlier this year was a tad disappointing, this 2006 Blanc de Blancs from Taittinger was lively and intense with a long minerally finish that I can still taste.

Sure, I will put the 2000 Krug Clos du Mesnil ahead of it in terms of depth and complexity but I wouldn’t put it nearly 10x ahead. Likewise, the Savart L’Ouverture (WS Ave $47) was an absolutely scrumptious bottle just oozing with character.

I’ll be honest, when we had an opportunity to revisit the Champagnes later in the night, including more of the Clos du Mesnil, I let my wife (who really loved the Clos) get my extra pour so I could enjoy more of the Taittinger and Savart. Since I was the one driving home, I had to prioritize what wines I was going to savor and those were my picks.

If the Krug Clos du Mesnil was more in the $300-400 range, I could see myself wanting to give it another shot. It’s not a disappointing wine at all. But it’s hard to justify the cost especially when there are other wines even in the Krug stable (like their super solid Grande Cuvée at around $200) that can give me just as much pleasure for a better price.

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Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Carruades de Lafite, Pedesclaux, Pichon Lalande, Reserve de la Comtesse de Lalande

Photo by Anonymous circa 1900-1920 from private postcard collection. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD OldWe are heading back to Pauillac to look at the offers for Carruades de Lafite–the second wine of Ch. Lafite-Rothschild–the 5th Growth Ch. Pedesclaux, the 2nd Growth Ch. Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande and their wine second wine–Reserve de la Comtesse de Lalande.

In our previous forays to this highly regarded Left Bank commune we looked at the 2017 Bordeaux Futures offers for Lynch-Bages, d’Armailhac, Clerc-Milon and Duhart-Milon as well as that of the 5th Growth Ch. Haut-Batailley in the very first post of this continuing series covering the 2017 campaign.

You can check out the links at the bottom of the page to see more offers that we’ve explored.

Carruades de Lafite (Pauillac)

Some Geekery:

Carruades de Lafite is the second wine of the legendary First Growth, Ch. Lafite-Rothschild. First introduced in the 1850s during the period of “the Vandelberghe Mystery” ownership, Lafite helped pioneered the practice of producing a second cuvée to compliment the Grand Vin.

However, in practice the designation was used sparingly for the next 100 years till the Rothschild family reintroduced the wine in the 1960s as Moulin de Carruades–named after a parcel of vineyards on the Carruades plateau that was first acquired by the estate in 1845. Located near the chateau, most of the fruit from these prime plantings actually end up in the Grand Vin instead of their namesake wine.

Photo by PA. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Château Lafite-Rothschild

Instead, Carruades de Lafite (renamed in the 1980s) gets its fruit from selected parcels designated for Carruades as well as some younger vines from the 112 ha (277 acre) vineyards of Lafite since vines less than 20 years of age are never used for the Grand Vin of Lafite. All the vineyards of Lafite are farmed organically and sustainably with some parcels farmed biodynamically.

Since 2016, Eric Kohler has overseen the winemaking of Lafite and its second wine. Prior to taking over as technical director, Kohler was in charge of the Domaines Barons de Rothschild estate of Domaine d’Aussieres in Languedoc as well as their South American properties–Vina Los Vascos in Chile and Bodegas Caro, their joint-venture project with the Catena family in Argentina.

In 2017, Jean Guillaume Prats (of Cos d’Estournel and LVMH fame) was named president of Domaines Baron Rothschild with Saskia de Rothschild, daughter of Baron Eric de Rothschild, joining as chairwoman in 2018.

The 2017 vintage is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc. Around 20,000 cases of the second wine are made each year.

Critic Scores:

92-93 James Suckling (JS), 91-93 Wine Enthusiast (WE), 90-93 Vinous Media (VM), 90-92 Wine Advocate (WA), 89-90 Jeff Leve (JL)

Sample Review:

The 2017 Carruades de Lafite is quite deep and fleshy at the outset. Black cherry, plum, lavender and rose petal are pushed forward in this dark, racy second wine from Lafite-Rothschild. Deep, textured and beautifully resonant, the 2017 has a lot to recommend it. This is a strong showing. Like many of his colleagues, Technical Director Eric Kolher opted for gentle extractions and incorporated a relatively high amount of press wine (14%) into the blend. — Antonio Galloni, Vinous

Offers:
Wine Searcher 2017 Average: $225
JJ Buckley: No offers yet.
Vinfolio: No offers yet.
Spectrum Wine Auctions: No offers yet.
Total Wine: $189.97 (no shipping with wines sent to local Total Wine store for pick up)
K&L: $229.99 + shipping (no shipping if picked up at 1 of 3 K & L locations in California)

Previous Vintages:
2016 Wine Searcher Ave: $275 Average Critic Score: 91 points
2015 Wine Searcher Ave: $323 Average Critic Score: 91
2014 Wine Searcher Ave: $329 Average Critic Score: 91
2013 Wine Searcher Ave: $322 Average Critic Score: 89

Buy or Pass?

Photo from anonymous postcard collection. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under Pd-Old

The vineyards of Ch. Lafite circa 1900-1920.


Since I haven’t had the opportunity to taste any previous vintages of Carruades de Lafite or Lafite-Rothschild, my instinct in a vintage like 2017 is to pass in favor of buying wines that I have a personal track record with.

But damn is this 2017 offer tempting–especially with Total Wine’s offer that is more than $30 less than the Wine Searcher average and only requires a payment of 50% ($104.87) upfront. I had to triple check it just to make sure that I had the price right.

While I don’t personally buy Bordeaux futures as investments, there is no doubt that the price of this wine is going to continue to rise. Besides 2016, you have to go back to 1984 (WS Ave $243) to find a vintage of Carruades de Lafite that is averaging less than $300 a bottle with several vintages (2005, 1992, 1991) averaging over $400 a bottle.

This is another head vs heart battle except it’s my heart telling me to stick with the 2017 wines that I know I will personally enjoy drinking while my head is telling me to look at these hard numbers and go with what looks like a very solid buy. I’m going to have to ponder this a bit more but right now I’m leaning towards Buy for maybe a bottle or two.

Ch. Pedesclaux (Pauillac)

Some Geekery:

Ch. Pedesclaux is a relatively young estate that was founded in the early 19th century by Pierre Urbain Pedesclaux who purchased land near Ch. Grand-Puy-Lacoste and d’Armailhac.

A well-connected negociant family (Edmond Pedesclaux was one of the brokers who helped craft the original 1855 classification), the Pedesclauxs owned the estate until 1891 when it was sold to the Comte de Gastebois. The next several decades saw years of neglect until Lucien Jugla of Ch. Colombier-Monpelou purchased the property in 1950. Jugla and his heirs carried out extensive replanting in the vineyards and it was during this time that the vineyards of Pedesclaux became very Merlot-dominant.

In 2009, the Jugla family sold Pedesclaux to Jacky Lorenzetti who owned the St. Estephe Cru Bourgeois of Lillian Ladouys and in 2013 acquired a 50% interest in the Margaux 3rd Growth Ch. d’Issan.

Photo by Clément Bucco-Lechat. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

In addition to his Bordeaux estates, Jacky Lorenzetti is also president of the Rugby club Racing Métro 92 based in the Paris suburb of Nanterre.

Under Lorenzetti, optical sorting was introduced and Vincent Bache-Gabrielsen was brought on to manage the property. The amount of Cabernet Sauvignon in the vineyards have steadily increased as additional parcels next to Ch. Lafite and Mouton-Rothschild have been acquired to go with other plots of enviable terroir close to Lynch-Bages

The estate still has significant amount of Merlot planted with 48 ha (119 acre) estate planted to 48% Merlot, 47% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Petit Verdot and 2% Cabernet Franc. However, most of the Merlot is used in the estate’s second wine, Fleur de Pedesclaux, with many vintages of that wine being 90% Merlot and the 2012 vintage being 100% Merlot.

The 2017 vintage of Ch. Pedesclaux is a blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot. Around 9000 cases a year are produced.

Critic Scores:

93-95 WE, 93-94 JS, 90-92 VM, 89-91 WA, 88-91 Wine Spectator (WS), 90-92 JL

Sample Review:

The nose pops with black currant, tobacco leaf, licorice, cedar and forestry aromatics. On the palate, the wine displays freshness in the fruits and cream on the tannins. Medium/full bodied with a lot of black and red fruits, which carry through to the endnotes, this has both charm and age ability. The higher percentage of Cabernet adds complexity and character to the wine. — Jeff Leve, The Wine Cellar Insider

Offers:
Wine Searcher 2017 Average: $42
JJ Buckley: No offers yet.
Vinfolio: No offers yet.
Spectrum Wine Auctions: No offers yet.
Total Wine: $44.97
K&L: $41.99 + shipping

Previous Vintages:
2016 Wine Searcher Ave: $48 Average Critic Score: 92 points
2015 Wine Searcher Ave: $50 Average Critic Score: 91
2014 Wine Searcher Ave: $44 Average Critic Score: 90
2013 Wine Searcher Ave: $37 Average Critic Score: 89

Buy or Pass?

I’ve only had a couple opportunities to taste Pedesclaux–all from vintages during the Lorenzetti era–but I haven’t been terribly impressed. The wines weren’t offensive at all, but I was hard-pressed to justify their price versus the value being delivered by their sister estate of Lillian Ladouys from the same vintages in the $25-35 range.

The potential of the terroir is undoubted so this estate is certainly worth keeping an eye on and revisiting. But for the same price I’m more incline to revisit the 2014 and Pass on buying futures of the 2017. I will, however, likely pick up some bottles of the 2017 Lillian Ladouys (WS Ave $20) when they hit retail shelves in 2020.

Pichon Lalande (Pauillac)

Some Geekery:

What is now Ch. Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande and its neighboring estate, Ch. Pichon Longueville Baron, were first planted in the 1680s by Pierre de Mazure de Rauzan who also owned the large Rauzan estate in Margaux.

His daughter, Thérèse, married the Baron Pichon de Longueville in 1694 and received the property as part of her dowry. Clive Coates notes in Grand Vins that during the early 18th century, the quality of the Pichon Longueville estate was of high repute, second only to that of Latour in the commune.

Upon the death of Baron Joseph de Pichon Longueville in 1850, the property was divided between his 5 children with his two sons receiving the portion that would become Ch. Pichon Baron and his three daughters– including Virginie, the Comtesse de Lalande–inheriting what would become Ch. Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande.

Photo by BillBl. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Ch. Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande

The property would stay in the hands of the sisters and their heirs until 1925 when it was sold to Edouard and Louis Miailhe. The Miailhe brothers expanded the vineyard holdings of the estate and planted significant acreage of Merlot. Edouard’s daughter, May-Eliane de Lencquesaing inherited the property in 1978 and would go on to take Pichon Lalande to high levels of success and recognition.

In 2007, she sold the property to the Rouzaud family of the Champagne house Louis Roederer where it is today part of a portfolio that includes the Bordeaux estates of Chateau de Pez and Ch. Haut Beausejour in St. Estephe as well as Chateau Reaut la Graviere in Lalande-de-Pomerol as well as managing interest in many other properties across the globe.

Since 2012, Nicolas Glumineau (formerly of Ch. Montrose) has been in charge of winemaking with Jacques Boissenot and Hubert de Boüard (of Ch. Angelus fame) as consultants.

Located on the Gironde side of the D2 highway, most of Pichon Lalande’s 89 ha (220 acres) are located next to Ch. Latour and Pichon Baron with some parcels close to Lynch-Bages. The estate also owns 11 ha of vineyard land in St. Julien that neighbor the vineyards of Léoville-Poyferré and Léoville-Las-Cases. Because these vines were historically used in the wines Ch. Pichon-Lalande before the 1855 classification, they are still permitted to be used in the Grand Vin or second wine of the estate.

All the vines are farmed sustainably with several hectares being farmed 100% organic. Since 2014, Pichon Lalande has been experimenting with biodynamics with Vincent Masson consulting.

The 2017 vintage is a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot. Around 15,000 cases a year are produced.

Critic Scores:

95-97 WE, 95-96 JS, 94-96 WA, 93-95 VM, 92-95 WS, 96-98 JL, 93-95 JD

Sample Review:

If you just taste the big name Pauillacs, you would be hard-pressed to understand that 2017 has been a challenging year. This is one of my wines of the vintage, no question. It’s from 21ha, biodynamically farmed, with Vincent Masson as consultant. Just a few plots further away from the river were affected by frost. The slight austerity of 2017 is evident, with a savoury quality to the fruit, but this is exceptionally good, with plenty of stunning fruit and well defined tannins. The aromatics are very refined, and the intense cassis fruit doesn’t sacrifice any intensity or power. It demonstrates the energy that Comtesse has displayed so consistently in recent vintages, with gorgeous finesse and structure to the tannins. The new cellar has raised the level of Cabernet from 65% to 70+%, with 12% press wine. This is going to age extremely well. (94 points) — Jane Anson, Decanter

Offers:
Wine Searcher 2017 Average: $125
JJ Buckley: $129.94 + shipping (no shipping if picked up at Oakland location)
Vinfolio: $129.00 + shipping
Spectrum Wine Auctions: $749.94 for minimum 6 bottles + shipping (no shipping if picked up at Tustin, CA location)
Total Wine: $124.97
K&L: $126.99 + shipping

Previous Vintages:
2016 Wine Searcher Ave: $189 Average Critic Score: 95 points
2015 Wine Searcher Ave: $172 Average Critic Score: 95
2014 Wine Searcher Ave: $119 Average Critic Score: 94
2013 Wine Searcher Ave: $114 Average Critic Score: 91

Buy or Pass?

Pichon Lalande is one of my favorite estates and virtually an automatic buy every year. While the prices have been steadily raising, I always believe that the quality and value they deliver out performs many “Super Seconds”.

Unquestionably age-worthy, I appreciate the versatility in the estate’s style to deliver approachable pleasure in its youth in both stellar (2005, 2010) and rougher vintages (2011, 2013). While I may end up keeping this bottle longer than my ideal “cellar defender” role of 5 to 7 years, I see little reason to not think that this consistency will continue.

With prices in line with the very delicious 2014, this is a definite Buy for me.

Reserve de la Comtesse de Lalande (Pauillac)

Some Geekery:

Photo from private post card collection. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-Old

Château Pichon-Longueville-Lalande circa 1900-1920.

Ch. Pichon Lalande produced its first second wine to compliment their Grand Vin in 1874. However, like Lafite and their second wine, the designation was only used sparingly until Reserve de la Comtesse de Lalande was introduced for the 1973 vintage.

While it can include fruit from any of Pichon Lalande’s holdings (including their St. Julien vines), a consistent component of the Reserve de la Comtesse de Lalande has been parcels located in the commune of Ste. Anne near the 5th Growth Ch. Batailley.

The 2017 vintage is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot. Around 6,000 cases a year are produced.

Critic Scores:

92-93 JS, 90-92 VM, 88-90 WA, 89-91 JD, 89-91 JL

Sample Review:

The second wine of Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, the 2017 Réserve de la Comtesse is a final blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot and the rest Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Still aging in roughly 40% new French oak, it has a medium-bodied, rounded, moderately concentrated profile to go with classic Pauillac lead pencil, tobacco leaf, and assorted earth dark fruits. It’s balanced, charming and already approachable. — Jeb Dunnuck, JebDunnuck.com

Offers:
Wine Searcher 2017 Average: $42
JJ Buckley: No offers yet.
Vinfolio: No offers yet.
Spectrum Wine Auctions: $251.94 for minimum 6 bottles + shipping
Total Wine: $42.97
K&L: $42.99 + shipping

Previous Vintages:
2016 Wine Searcher Ave: $48 Average Critic Score: 90 points
2015 Wine Searcher Ave: $49 Average Critic Score: 91
2014 Wine Searcher Ave: $42 Average Critic Score: 89
2013 Wine Searcher Ave: $40 Average Critic Score: 88

Buy or Pass?

While I adore the Grand Vin of Pichon Lalande, and am usually quite pleased with the value of most seconds wines, I will confess that the Réserve de la Comtesse has never really wowed me. For whatever reason, this is one second wine that has always felt decidedly “second best”.

It’s likely that as Pichon Lalande has been steadily increasing the amount of Cabernet Sauvignon in their vineyard, the fruit of these young vines have been making their way to this second wine–and that may contribute to the harshness and hollowness that often characterize my notes of the Réserve de la Comtesse. There are plenty of other more compelling buys in the same price range that makes this a Pass for me.

More Posts About the 2017 Bordeaux Futures Campaign

Why I Buy Bordeaux Futures

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Langoa Barton, La Lagune, Barde-Haut, Branaire-Ducru

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Pape Clément, Ormes de Pez, Marquis d’Alesme, Malartic-Lagraviere

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Lynch-Bages, d’Armailhac, Clerc-Milon and Duhart-Milon

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Clos de l’Oratoire, Monbousquet, Quinault l’Enclos, Fonplegade

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Cos d’Estournel, Les Pagodes des Cos, Phélan Ségur, Calon-Segur

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Clinet, Clos L’Eglise, L’Evangile, Nenin

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Malescot-St.-Exupéry, Prieuré-Lichine, Lascombes, Cantenac-Brown

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Domaine de Chevalier, Larrivet Haut-Brion, Les Carmes Haut-Brion, Smith Haut Lafitte

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Beychevelle, Talbot, Clos du Marquis, Gloria

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Beau-Séjour Bécot, Canon-la-Gaffelière, Canon, La Dominique

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Vieux Chateau Certan, La Conseillante, La Violette, L’Eglise Clinet

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Montrose, La Dame de Montrose, Cantemerle, d’Aiguilhe

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Clos Fourtet, Larcis Ducasse, Pavie Macquin, Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarrosse

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Kirwan, d’Issan, Brane-Cantenac, Giscours

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60 Second Whiskey Review — Ardbeg Perpetuum

A few quick thoughts on the Ardbeg Perpetuum Scotch single malt whisky.

The Geekery

In Whisky Classified David Wishart notes that Ardbeg was founded in 1815 by John MacDougall on the southeast coast of Islay at the site of a popular landing spot for smugglers.

The source of the distilleries soft water is the nearby Loch Uigeadail. The water flows over peat bogs on the way to the distillery giving Ardbeg peaty water to go with the peated malt.

Today Ardbeg is owned by Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH) where it is part of a portfolio that includes fellow distillery Glenmorangie as well as Belevedere Vodka and Champagne houses Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot, Krug and Ruinart.

The Perpetuum was a special limited edition bottling released in 2015 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Ardbeg’s founding. A non-age statement (NAS) whisky, the Perpetuum is a blend of batches that have been aged in a combination of ex-bourbon and Sherry casks.

The Whiskey

Photo by FotoosVanRobin. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

The combination of sweet and savory smoke in this whiskey reminds me of bacon-wrapped bananas.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Distinctly iodine and bandages with some earthy forest floor.

On the palate, those medicinal elements give way to a savory meatiness that is very intriguing–like cured salume. Noticeable sweetness on the tip of the tongue suggest some tropical fruit character like bananas. A little on the light side at 47.4% ABV but well balanced with no need to add water or ice.

The Verdict

Full disclosure–I’m not a smokey-peaty whiskey fan in the slightest. I greatly prefer more malt driven whiskies where cereal, fruit and spice notes take center-stage like those of Glenfarclas, Glenmorangie and Balblair–though I can appreciate some elements of salinity and subtle smoke from island whiskies like Talisker and Oban.

That said, while the Ardbeg Perpetuum is too peaty for me, it is a well made whiskey. It certainly has complexity which would merit its $90-100 price for those who appreciate this style more.

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Pink Washing in the Booze Industry for Pride Month

“You know you matter as soon as you are marketable.”

I found that quote scribbled in the margins of a used copy of Wine Marketing & Sales I purchased from Amazon. I have no clue about the original author. However, a cynical corollary to that proverb often gets bantered about during Pride Month.

“Businesses start paying attention when they realize you can be marketed to.”

The origins of Pride is about the LGBT community overcoming obstacles and affirming our right to live openly and without fear. It’s something that is still needed even today. Yet every year there are concerns that the significance of Pride is lost in lieu of having a big ole party.

But this conflict isn’t unique to Pride. Many religious and secular holidays such as Christmas and Memorial Day have drifted far from their original meaning.

Far from sitting on the sidelines, the alcohol industry is often at the forefront in this crass commercialization of holidays with producers and retailers banking on the uptick of sales during the winter holidays to make their financial year–which is why things like “reindeer wine,” boozy ornaments and whiskey advent calendars exist.

Likewise, every Memorial Day will prominently feature large liquor displays at stores–not necessarily to help people remember the sacrifice of service members but rather to “toast the beginning of summer” with a packed cooler and a 3-day weekend.

Eat, Drink and Be Gay

Even with the many challenges we still face (especially globally), the LGBT community has indeed moved beyond being universally shunned and shuttered into the closest. We’re now a very marketable demographic that businesses eagerly seek. With an estimated purchasing power of nearly $1 trillon in the US, on a global scale, the LGBT community would have the 4th largest GDP of any country at $4.6 trillion.

Photo by puroticorico. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

A pride float in Chicago featuring Absolut Vodka

Is it any wonder why businesses see Pride Month as “Gay Christmas”?

Again, you can look and find examples of the alcohol industry leading the way with vodka brands like Absolut and Smirnoff developing ad campaigns for the LGBT community since the 1980s and Anheuser-Busch being a fixture at Pride events since the 1990s.

In the wine industry, Clos du Bois (now part of Constellation Brands) began donating in the mid 1990s to LGBT causes like the AIDS Memorial Quilt project and highlighting their involvement in print ads. Over the next decade, more wine brands would regularly sponsor Pride events and advertise in LGBT publications. These included Beaulieu Vineyard (Treasury Estates), Domaine Chandon (LVMH), Rosemount Estate (Treasury Estate) and Merryvale Vineyards.

Travel and wine events catering to the LGBT community emerge such as Out in the Vineyard that started in Sonoma in 2011 with sponsorship from Boisett Family Estates, DeLoach, Gary Farrell, Iron Horse, J Vineyards, Jackson Family Estates, Lasseter Family Winery, Muscardini, Ravenswood, Sebastiani and Windsor Oaks among others.

It’s not just wine, it’s GAY WINE!

Most of these early marketing campaigns were based on promoting existing products. However, soon producers began developing exclusive products targeting LGBT consumers. Kim Crawford (Constellation) takes credit for creating the world’s first “gay wine” with its 2004 launch of a rosé named Pansy. Though not necessarily claiming to be a “gay wine”, Rainbow Ridge Winery in Palm Spring, owned by LGBT owners, may have beat them to the punch with their 2001 Alicante Boushet. They certainly win on the merit of having a far less offensive name.

In Argentina, the Buenos Aires Gay Wine Store partnered with a local Argentine winery to produce Pilot Gay Wine in 2006. While debates about gay marriage was carrying on globally, Biagio Cru & Estate Wines created a sparkling Cremant de Bourgogne named Égalité (meaning “equality”) in 2013 to celebrate the crusade for marriage equality.

Lest other segments of the industry get left behind, in 2011 Minerva Brewery in Mexico released what they called the “World’s First Gay Beers” with two honey ales–Purple Hand Beer and Salamandra.

Be cynical or celebrate?

I understand the instinct to chafe at the “Curse of Pink Washing” and the sense of being pandered to by corporate interests. That is my initial response to a lot of gay marketing. But I can still celebrate the meaning of Christmas while putting up snowmen and Santa decorations. Likewise, the solemnity of Memorial Day can still be observed while BBQing burgers and brats.

For me, I won’t begrudge any business for creating special “Pride packaging” or products. However, I won’t give them a free pass either. The quality still needs to be inside the colorful wrapping to merit a positive review or a second purchase.

In that vein, I decided to try Fremont Brewing Pride Seattle Kolsch and House Wine’s Limited Edition Rosé Bubbles Can and review them below.

The Beer

I’d definitely buy this even outside of Pride month.

Medium intensity nose with fresh wheat grain and some subtle lemon pastry notes.

The mouthfeel is refreshing. Very well balanced with the citrus notes more pronounced. Extremely session-able with low hops and plenty of malted grain flavor.

The Wine

Sourced from “American Grapes” of unknown variety or origins.

Medium-minus nose with faint and not very defined red fruit. There is also a tropical rind note that vaguely reminds me of cantaloupe rinds.

While certainly not “bottle fermented”, it’s very likely that this wasn’t made via the Charmat method or tank fermentation either.
Most likely Precept made this with straight carbonation like soda.

On the palate, the bubbles are very coarse and almost gritty. Slightly bitter phenolics brings up more of the rind note from the nose. It segues into apple peel with just a little bit of unripe strawberry representing the faint red fruit.

The Verdict

The Fremont Pride Kolsch was a very enjoyable beer in its own right. Even beyond Pride, it’s worth $8-10 for a four pack of 16 oz cans.

The House Wine “Rainbow Bubbles”, however, was very reminiscent of Cook’s or Andre’s. It honestly seemed like someone took a light rosé and put it through a Soda Stream. At $4-5 for a 375ml can, I’d much rather spend $3-4 more to get a bottle of Spanish Cava.

That would be something worth toasting Pride with.

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60 Second Wine Reviews — Ruinart Brut

A few quick thoughts on the NV Ruinart Brut Champagne.

The Geekery

While I love geeking out over grower Champagnes, I must confess to having a soft spot for Ruinart. While frequently lost in the LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) portfolio of mega-brands like Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Dom Perignon, the quality of this house has always been top-notch.

I reviewed the Ruinart Blanc de Blancs and Rosé over a year ago in my post A Toast to Joy and Pain where I give some background about the house and also note the apt description by the LVMH Brand Ambassador that Ruinart is the “best prestige house that most people haven’t heard of.”

Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan note in Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine that Nicolas Ruinart, who founded the estate in 1729, was the nephew of Dom Thierry Ruinart who was a close friend of Dom Perignon.

The Ruinart Brut (also known as ‘R’ de Ruinart) is a blend of 49% Pinot noir, 40% Chardonnay and 11% Pinot Meunier. The wine usually includes 20-25% reserve wines from older vintages. It is aged for around 36 months before being bottled with a dosage of 9 g/l.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. Noticeable toasty bread dough with baked pears and almond shavings. This wine smells like you are in a French bakery.

Photo by Franklin Heijnen. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

This Champagne smells like you are walking into a French bakery.

On the palate those pear and doughy notes come through but also bring a spice element of cinnamon and allspice. Very weighty and mouth-filling with a silky mousse. This Champagne feels like a meal in itself. Well balanced with the dosage though I wished it was tad drier. An intriguing white floral element emerges on the long finish to go with the lingering toastiness.

The Verdict

While not quite to the level of Ruinart’s Blanc de Blancs and Rosé, this is still a phenomenally well made Champagne.

At around $55-65, it is a bit of a bump from your basic Champagnes like Veuve and Moët but the quality jump is significant.

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Thought Bubbles – How to Geek Out About Champagne

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

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

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

Deal? Alright, let’s have some fun.

1.) Start Popping Bottles!

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

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

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

Make friends with your local wine shop folks

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

Learn the differences between négociant houses, grower-producers and co-operatives
On Wikimedia Commons under PD-US from United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsca.05590.

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

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

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

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

But here is where it gets exciting.

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

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

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

Pay attention to sweetness and house style

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

By Kici, Released on Wikimedia Commons under public domain

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

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

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

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

Explore the Grand Crus and vineyard designated bottles

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

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

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

Well worth the hunt

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

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

2.) Great Reading Resources

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

A few favs

The Five Essential Books On Champagne, Plus One For the Wine Prophet

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.) Next Level Geekery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throughout the world, producers making bubbly. From African wineries in Morocco, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa; Asian wineries in China and India; to more well known sparkling wine producing countries in Australia, Argentina, Chile, United Kingdom and Eastern Europe–the possibilities are near endless.

Even in your own backyard

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

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

So have fun and keep exploring!

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