Tag Archives: Moët & Chandon

Geek Notes — More Champagne with GuildSomm Podcast

This is the second part of our Geek Notes review of the GuildSomm podcasts with Ruinart’s chef de cave Frédéric Panaiotis. To catch up on the first segment, check out Geek Notes — The Process of Champagne GuildSomm Podcast.

GuildSomm podcast

In that post I also highlight why listening to podcasts is an extremely valuable tool for wine students. But not all podcasts are created equal or are worth your time. There have been many podcasts that I’ve picked up only to unsubscribe after a couple of episodes. Sometimes it is the overall production value that steers me away–noticeable mouth breathing, weird audio jumps between loud voices and whispers, distracting background music, etc. But usually, it is because of a lack of credibility in the content and people producing the podcast.

The world of wine is constantly changing and there is a lot of material to cover. Any podcast that is worth its salt needs to be backed up with solid research and commitment to accuracy.

One of the best wine podcasts, in that regard, is the GuildSomm podcast founded by Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth.

Some Background

Kruth founded GuildSomm in 2009 as a nonprofit that promotes education and development opportunities for sommeliers and other wine professionals. Though many people who aspire to be Master Sommeliers join and utilize the website’s materials, GuildSomm is not a part of the Court Of Master Sommeliers.

Podcasts, videos and recent articles are available to anyone for free on the website. However, access to the forums, study guides, maps, master classes and in-depth training material on topics like blind tasting require membership. For wine industry folks, the fee is $100 a year while for non-industry wine lovers it is $150.

Fun Things I Learned From This Podcast

Ruinart Champagne

Ruinart’s non-vintage blanc de blancs and rose.

Like the previous podcast, this episode (44:54) features a highly informative interview with Ruinart’s Frédéric Panaiotis. But the second half is a discussion with the acclaimed grower-producer Rodolphe Péters of Pierre Péters.

(1:29) The podcast starts with a description of the Montagne de Reims region of Champagne. This area, south of the city of Reims, has a unique horseshoe shape.

The topography creates a diversity of exposures in nearly all orientations (south, east, north, west, etc). This makes it hard to generalize the style of wines from its several villages–including 10 Grand Cru (Ambonnay, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Bouzy, Louvois, Mailly-Champagne, Puisieulx, Sillery, Tours-sur-Marne, Verzenay and Verzy).

Panaiotis gives a nice overview here but for anyone wanting to really dive deep into this diverse terroir, I very highly recommend Peter Liem’s Champagne, one of my 5 essential books on Champagne.

(2:00) Panaiotis does note, however, that the northern side of the Montagne de Reims (which includes the Grand Cru villages of Mailly, Sillery, Verzy and Verzenay) produces wines with more fresh acidity that have great aging potential.

Chardonnay From the Heart of Pinot-country
By Map data (c) OpenStreetMap contributors, CC-BY-SA• derived via osm download geofabrik.de and osm2pgsql, OpenStreetMap contributors.• Data for landuse: OSM - derived wor CC BY 2.0,

The village of Sillery is located southeast of Reims and north of the Grand Crus of Mailly, Verzenay and Verzy.

(2:23) Even though the Montagne de Reims is known for Pinot noir, the eastern villages (mostly premier cru) are esteemed for the quality of their Chardonnay. Panaiotis describes how the gentle eastern exposure of these villages is similar to the Cote d’Or’s east-facing escarpment. Ruinart uses a lot of this fruit for their blanc de blancs Champagne.

(3:49) Sillery is the only Grand Cru of the Montagne de Reims that has more Chardonnay than Pinot noir.

(5:37) Kruth asks Panaiotis how much of Ruinart’s Chardonnay comes from the Montagne de Reims. It is around 30%.

(5:52) Instead of keeping the juice from different villages separate, Ruinart blends the wines regionally. The reason for this is logistics and the need to fill up tanks quickly. As I noted in the last Geek Notes on the process of Champagne, this is a significant divergence in the mindset of small growers versus big houses.

An Overview of Vintages

(8:26) Kruth asks about the recent vintages of Champagne. 2007 was a Chardonnay year while rain took a toll on Pinot noir and Meunier. In contrast, 2008 was more of a Pinot year. 2009 was a warmer year producing more rounder wines. While Panaiotis doesn’t elaborate, I’m curious if he was insinuating that he’s not expecting the 2009s to age as long as other vintages. But the trade-off could be more approach-ability when younger.

(9:36) 2010 is similar to 2007 in being a Chardonnay year. Panaiotis seems high on this year for Ruinart Champagnes. He compares it to 2002 regarding power but with more freshness and expects it to be a benchmark year. However, also like 2007, this was more of a difficult year for the Pinots.

Chardonnay Years vs Pinot Years
Photo from INRA, Jean Weber. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Chardonnay harvest in the village of Festigny (an Autre cru) in the Vallée de la Marne.

While it is a bit simplistic to think of years as Chardonnay years or Pinot years, it is a good starting point. Each of the major houses has a distinctive “house style” that tends to lean more on one grape variety or the other. Of course, they are going to try to make the best Champagne they can every year. But it is worthwhile to make a mental note of which years tend to favor a particular house style–especially if you are thinking about splurging for a prestige cuvee.

For instance, other Chardonnay-dominated houses like Ruinart include Perrier-Jouët, Taittinger, Laurent-Perrier and, of course, blanc de blancs specialists like Salon.

Pinot dominated houses include Lanson, Piper-Heidsieck, Mumm, Nicolas Feuillatte, Champagne Mailly, Veuve Clicquot and Moët & Chandon.

(10:11) 2011 was a tough vintage all around because of rain and botrytis infection. There will likely not be many vintage Champagnes produced. 2012 was a puzzling vintage for Panaiotis because the grapes came in so healthy yet the base wine didn’t live up to his exception to make great a prestige cuvee for Ruinart. He suspects that the year will be better for Pinot dominated producers.

The Wrath of the Drosophila suzukii
By Martin Cooper from Ipswich, UK - Spotted-wing Drosophila (Drosophila suzukii) male, CC BY 2.0,

The spotted wing Drosophila suzukii wrecked a lot of havoc throughout Europe during the 2014 vintage.

(11:12) 2013 was an easy year with good wines produced. Meanwhile, 2014 had a lot of rot issues caused by an invasion of a Japanese fruit fly that devastated many vineyards (particularly the Pinots). This hit not only Champagne in 2014 but also Germany, Rhône and Burgundy.

However, the fly had issues “seeing” white grapes so the vintage wasn’t as bad for Chardonnay. Still, Panaiotis describes it mostly as a “non-vintage year”.

(12:12) 2015 was a good year but one characterized by drought and low-nitrogen levels in the must. For Ruinart, 2016 was a non-vintage year but Panaiotis notes that some producers like Villamart will be making very good 2016 vintage Champagnes.

(12:35) The 2017 vintage will be interesting because of how mature the grapes were harvested, even though they were picked relatively early. This is a vintage where the impact of global warming will be felt. The year is tilting towards a Chardonnay year (with the Pinots having some rot issues) but will be good for non-vintages.

The Importance of Primary Fermentation
Photo by Alberto Vaccaro. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Temperature control during primary fermentation is vitally important in maintaining freshness in Champagne. Here in one of the fermenting rooms of Moët & Chandon each tank is outfitted with a cooling jacket.

(14:10) The conversation switches to fermentation. There is a little overlap with the last podcast in the discussion of things like reductive winemaking.

(17:29) Kruth gives a great analogy of how the effects of the first fermentation get amplified in the secondary fermentation of Champagne. This is a really important point to understand because so often this fermentation gets overlooked because it isn’t the step that produces the “magic” of the bubbles. Yet, a Champagne is only as good as its base ingredient–the vin clair.

(18:13) The reasoning above is why Panaiotis is not a fan of using oak in the first fermentation at Ruinart. However, for other producers like Krug, the “amplification” of those flavors is a house style.

(19:24) One unique thing that Panaiotis mentions in his parting comment is that for the 2010 vintage, Ruinart switched to sealing the wine for the secondary fermentation with cork instead of the traditional crown cap. This is an exciting trend that is getting a lot of attention of late. The idea is that cork allows for better interaction with oxygen and the yeast but there seem to be other benefits as well–including more reductive flavors (!?) Certainly something I want to investigate more.

Interview With Rodolphe Péters of Pierre Péters

Photo by Immanuel Giel. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The chalky limestone of Champagne A fascinating produced at the same time as the White Cliff of Dover.

(20:50) As the interview switches to Peters, the focus shifts to the terroir of the Côte des Blancs. The origins of the region’s soils are similar to the Montagne de Reims–the ancient sea that birthed the Paris Basin as well as the White Cliffs of Dover.

However, the biggest difference between the two regions is the depth of the topsoil with the soil being much thinner in the Côte des Blancs. This is one of the reasons why Chardonnay is favored here since it can deal with shallow top soils easier than Pinot noir.

(22:59) Another comparison between the Côte des Blancs and the Cote d’Or with its north-south band of vineyards that face east. But here Peters points out the favor-ability of east-facing slopes–the gentle early morning heat of the sun instead of the harsher late afternoon heat that hits others exposures.

This is helpful in slowing down the maturation of Chardonnay which can risk losing elegance and flavor if it ripens too much, too quickly.

(23:54) Echoing again some of the sentiments of Frédéric Panaiotis in the first half, Peters calls out the specialness of Chardonnay from the eastern villages of the Montagne de Reims–particularly the Premier Cru villages of Trépail and Villers-Marmery.

The links to the villages above go to one of my favorite blogs on Champagnes. Each profile also includes a list of growers who produce Champagnes from these villages. These will be high on my list of Champagnes to seek out.

The Four Seasons of the Côte des Blancs

(24:21) Kruth asks for an overview of the different villages of the Côte des Blancs. Peters responds with a very poetic comparison of the personality of the main villages to the four seasons. Le Mesnil-sur-Oger is winter, producing tight Champagnes that can be austere in their youth. This is caused by, in Peters’ opinion, the soft and dry chalk that accentuates the wine’s sharp minerality.

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

The Grand Cru village of Oger is on flatter land and at a lower altitude than neighboring Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.

While Oger has the same soil profile as Le Mesnil, it is a little flatter and lower in altitude. This creates an amphitheater that warms up the micro-climate of the village, producing softer and rounder wines. Peters equates the style of wine from here to spring with an elegant and feminine character.

Avize is also lower altitude with the best sites located on flat terrain. It has a little deeper topsoil with some clay mixed with the chalk. This is unique compared to the other Côte des Blancs villages because it has a higher concentration of organic material in the soil. This produces a richer, juicer more citrus-style of Chardonnay that Peters equate to summer.

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

Vineyards in Cramant tend to have an “oilier” chalk that produces creamier style Champagnes.

Cramant is a little higher than Avize in altitude with an “oilier” style of chalk as opposed to the soft and dry chalk of Le Mesnil. This lends itself towards creamier and more approachable Champagnes. Along with the hazelnut and sweet baking spices that they tend to produce, this profile reminds Peters of autumn.

Viticulture and Climate Change

(29:45) Kruth asks about what differences in viticulture that are seen in the Côte des Blancs compared to other regions of Champagne. Peters notes that his personal approach is a little different than his neighbors. One of his priorities is to minimize compaction of the thin topsoil by limiting the amount of disturbance it sees.

For instance, he cultivates grasses between his vines but doesn’t plow it in. The one exception is in Avize, with its deeper topsoil, which can take some light plowing. However, he is also mindful of the character of a vintage with rainier years sometimes requiring a different approach.

Adapting to Change
By Igor Zemljič (IgorvonLenart at sl.wikipedia) - Transferred from sl.wikipedia, Public Domain

While Chardonnay has adjusted to rising temperature, riper Pinot Meunier grapes can create problems with tighter clusters that are more prone to botrytis.

(31:45) Peters notes that Chardonnay growers in the Côte des Blancs have been relatively lucky with a string of good quality and easy vintages. Meanwhile, Pinot producers (particularly Meunier) have had to be on their toes a lot more with the weather change.

One of the challenges for Pinot Meunier that Peters highlights is that the warmer weather is producing bigger, riper berries. While this might seem beneficial on the surface, the stems are not getting any bigger. Therefore, the Pinot Meunier clusters are getting tighter and more compact which increases the risk of botrytis rot, especially in rainy vintages.

(33:09) Chalk is a winemaker’s best friend because of how well it regulates the climate–especially excessive water during rainier vintages. But it also retains water well during drought years. Likewise, the soil is able to deal with hot vintages by absorbing heat and then slowly releasing it later in the night so that the vine is not overwhelmed.

(33:40) Peters notes that over the years, he has seen the major houses gradually increasing the amount of Chardonnay they use due to the grape’s ability to better weather climate change.

A Contrast of Vintages

(34:08) Kruth asks for Peters thoughts on particular vintages. He highlights a few that he thinks are interesting–2013 and 2017.

The 2013 vintage was a long growing season with 104 days of maturation. This allowed the grapes to get perfectly ripe without being excessively mature. In contrast, 2017 was very hot which caused a spike in sugars. Peters noted that growers had to start picking their grapes after 87 days to avoid high alcohol.

However, Peters feels that many of these early harvesters didn’t taste their grapes with the resulting wines still having unripe flavors. He waited till 91 days to get some more maturity. He feels that 2017 is the first vintage that the Champenois really had to face the reality of climate change.

Grand Marque vs Grower
Paul Bara Champagne

Paul Bara, one of the first grower producers to gain traction in the US.

(37:35) The conversation moves to the general impression of grower-producers, especially in the sommelier community. Kruth wonders if it has now become a marketing wedge like Red States vs Blue States, Grand Marque vs. Grower, etc. He particularly calls out sommeliers who only feature grower Champagnes on their wine lists.

Peters response gives some interesting food for thought and is well worth a listen. He does see benefits of the big houses but notes they have some issues. While grower Champagne answer some of those issues, Peters is not a fan of the idea that merely because something is a grower that it must be good.

(40:45) A really interesting discussion follows Kruth describing the “trick of oxidation” that he feels that some growers utilized to make up for the lack of aging and use of reserve wines. He contrasts this with the long, slow reductive aging of many great Champagnes. This is particularly fascinating in the context of Chardonnay-dominant producers because of how much affinity Chardonnay has for reductive winemaking and how awry it can get without a careful hand if treated oxidatively.

A very thought-provoking conversation to end the podcast on.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Sip or Spit — Looking at Wine Predictions for 2019

This time of year, a lot of smart folks in the beverage industry lay down their cards to predict what major trends can be expected next year. As with pop culture and sports, these articles are fun to read but you don’t want to put too much stock put in them. (I mean, come on, you really thought Bryce Harper and Manny Machado would sign during the Winter Meetings?)

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

Sip or Spit? How seriously should we take these wine predictions for 2019?

Of course, the value of such predictions rests in the quality of the source. I’ve always found the folks at Wine Intelligence, a UK consulting and research firm, to be sharp tacks. So I ascribe a little more weight to their assessments than I do other sources. Still, while there were some thing from their Five Predictions for 2019 worth sipping, there were others I certainly spat out.

1.) Alcohol intake will continue to fall in developed world markets (Spit with a little sipping)

As I noted in my article The Kids Will Probably Be Alright — Looking at Generation Z Trends, I don’t buy into the idea of Gen Z as the “teetotaler generation”. It is far too early and too small of a sample size to make that assessment. For Christ-sakes, 95% of them are still under 21! I surely hope that most of them are teetotaling right now.

However, I do think that the trend of “Drinking Less, But Better” that we’re seeing in the Millennial generation will continue with Generation Z. Alcohol is expensive and is full of calories. It’s clear that my generation, and likely the following one, have been adopting the mindset that if we’re going to spend the money and calories on something, it better be worth it.

Which is a good thing and something that should serve as a curb to the idea that moderate consumption of alcohol (like wine) is incompatible with a healthy lifestyle. That “incompatibility” seems to be the crux of the scare reports of Generation Z and Millennials turning away from alcohol.

From keg stands to Brose´
Photo by ProjectManhattan. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Ramen–the lifeblood of the broke Millennial. Also a great pairing for under $15 Cru Beaujolais and Chenin blanc.

Yeah, we might be turning away from weekend keggers, cheap jug wine sangrias, Smirnoff and Fireball jello shots, but what we’re turning to is more mindful moderate drinking. Younger generations, like myself, are not drinking for the sake of drinking. We’re looking for something more than just a buzz.

Growing up in the age of technology and easy access to knowledge, we’re aware of the risks of binge drinking. But we’re also aware of the benefits of moderation. Plus, our “foodie” nature is far more incline than past generations to embrace the role of a glass of wine in enhancing the pleasure of even everyday meals—like ramen noodles.

So while bulk and mass producers may have reasons to worry about the upcoming generations, I don’t think quality minded producers need to fret as much.

2.) Overall knowledge levels about the details of wine and where it comes from will decline (Spit)

This prediction is based on Wine Intelligence’s 2018 US Portraits report of wine consumers. I don’t have an extra $3500 to buy the full report and dive deep into what methodology led to that conclusion, but on the surface this doesn’t pass the “sniff test”.

When you look at other observations and reporting, the level of wine knowledge among the average consumer has never been higher. For one, enrollments in wine certification programs have been booming. Google “Wine Appreciation Class” and you’ll get over 34 million hits, confessing to a wide interest among consumers to learn more.

This is something that I touched on in my article It’s Raining Masters, about the influx of successful Master Sommelier candidates. (This was before the cheating scandal broke) We are in the midst of a golden age of wine knowledge.

Yet, somehow, we’re getting “wine dumber”?

Even the post’s author, Richard Halstead, acknowledges the counter-intuitiveness of his prediction.

Over the past couple of years we have started to see an interesting and counterintuitive trend. More people in more markets around the world are saying they care about wine, that the category is important to them, that they take their time when buying wine – sentiments which we bundle up into a collective measure called “involvement”. At the same time, overall objective knowledge about the category – understanding of grape varieties, countries of origin, regions, and so on – has been in decline: people know fewer things about wine any more. — Richard Halstead, Wine Intelligence, 12/12/2018

One theory they propose is smartphone reliance. That does makes some sense and has been debated in other contexts before. There is also the idea that the globalization of wine has brought more stuff to the table for the average consumer to know about.

More to Discover, More to Learn, More to Enjoy
Photo taken my self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Once pursued only by the wine trade, now more and more wine lovers are signing up for advance certifications like the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET)

It’s no longer Napa, Champagne, Chardonnay, Cabernet and Pinot grigio. Now we’ve got Coonawarra, Franciacorta, Fiano, Touriga Nacional, Chenin blanc and so much more.

I suppose when you consider how much more is out there to learn and explore, the average wine consumer’s “overall” grasp of details may go down.

But that is like comparing the “knowledge level” of a middle schooler with that of a college student. The former is exposed to far less. Of course, it is easier to “master” more of that knowledge within their little world. However, the later’s exposure to exponentially more gives the potential for even greater knowledge.

While I’m open to hearing more thoughts on the matter, there so much counter-intuitiveness about this prediction that I’ll remain skeptical now.

3.) Vegan wine will become a thing (Sip)

This I buy completely. It’s a topic that I explored earlier this year with my article What’s fine (and not so fine) about Vegan Wines.

I have no doubt that we are going to see more wines labeled as “Vegan-friendly”. But I am concerned with the obsession over fining agents. Especially for people who adopt a Vegan-lifestyle for ethical reasons, it seems like a bigger quandary is to be had over viticultural practice like biodynamics that regularly employ the use of animal products. Furthermore, there are issues with what alternatives wineries may use to produce highly manipulated (though “Vegan-friendly”) wines.

Are the most “vegan-friendly” vineyards the ones being farmed with heavy saturation of pesticides and chemical fertilizers? It seems like it when you compare it to organic and biodynamic vineyards with high insect MOG and animal-derived fertilizers.

Mass produced wines like the PETA recommended Sutter Home and Moët & Chandon often employ these conventional, chemical dependent styles of viticulture.

While avoiding using animal-based fining agents to remove excess tannins and haze forming proteins, big mega-corps can use other tricks to manipulate the wine with things like lab designed enzymes, oak adjuncts and Mega Purple which will “smooth out” bitter tannins and cover up off-flavors. — What’s fine (and not so fine) about Vegan Wines 2/25/2018

4.) Wine brands with sustained investment strategies will prosper at the expense of second-tier competitors (Sip)

Unfortunately, this is a sad reality of business. Branding often trumps quality and care. W. Blake Gray had a great article on Wine Searcher recently that highlights this as part of the Gloomy Outlook for Smaller Wineries.

Gray ended the article with a very ominous quote from Dale Stratton of Constellation Brands.

“The game is going to be stealing share,” Stratton said. “The pie is only as big as the pie is. The game is going to be stealing share from other places.”

Watch your pie, small wineries. Watch your pie. — W. Blake Gray, WineSearcher.com 12/7/2018

While not every winery can afford a fancy marketing department, it is imperative of every winery to focus on what makes them unique.

For the small winery competing against the big mega-corps, your “brand” is your story and all the tidbits that set you apart from the mass-produced wines that line supermarket shelves.

It’s simply not good enough just to make good wine. There are thousands of producers across the globe making wine as good, if not better, than yours. But what those wineries (and certainly what the big mega-corps) don’t have, is you and your story.

Finding ways to weave yourself into the narrative of your brand is only going to become more important for small wineries to succeed. That is one of the reasons why it is a shame that many wineries have abandoned or don’t know how to successfully use social media platforms like Twitter.

5.) A mainstream producer will introduce cannabis-infused wine (Sip and then toke)
Photo by Bogdan. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Does cannabis have terroir? We’ll probably be discussing that over the next decade.

This is probably the surest bet that any prognosticator can make. For an industry that will happily dive into whiskey barrel aging and weird coffee-infused hybrid wines, you know that development is already well on its way towards releasing a cannabis-infused wine.

The only question is, who will be first? Gallo or Constellation Brands?

Gallo has been leading the way on a lot of these trends with their Apothic brand. They’re a solid contender and a likely choice. Part of the fun is guessing what they’ll call it. Apothic Blaze? Apothic Kush?

However, Constellation Brands does actually have its own investments in the cannabis industry to the tune of $4 billion.

I’d be more incline to wager on Constellation developing a stand-alone brand for cannabis-infused wine. But I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see them roll it out under an established label, like Robert Mondavi, to try to give this trend more legitimacy.

When that happens, be sure to pour one out for poor Robert spinning in his grave in St. Helena.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

The Hits, Misses and Mehs of Wine Reviews

Earlier this week The Seattle Times published an article about the top Costco Kirkland wines as selected by a local wine blogger.

Kirkland brand Champagne

One of the wines featured was the Kirkland Signature Brut Champagne that I picked up for $19.99. Throughout the month of December, my wife and I like to open up a bottle of sparkling wine each night. That can get expensive with Champagne so we make sure to stock up on plenty of Proseccos, Cavas and Cremants.

Needless to say, I was pretty excited at the idea of trying a true Champagne for the price of a Crémant de Bourgogne.

Reading Owen Bargreen’s review of the wine intrigued me. The Champagne certainly had pedigree with fruit from the Grand Cru village of Verzenay. Also, unusual for Kirkland branded wines, the back label listed who actually made it as Manuel Janisson of the négociant firm Champagne Janisson.

“The Brut Champagne by Kirkland Signature is a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier sourced from vineyards located in Verzenay. The wine starts off with lovely diatomaceous earth followed by lemon curd and brioche on the nose. The palate shows really nice citrus fruit with kumquat, lemon oil, sourdough bread and a light musty earth flavor. Dense and layered, this is a simply outstanding effort that is a one-of-a-kind value. Drink 2018-2024.” — Owen Bargreen as quoted by Tan Vinh for The Seattle Times 12/7/2018

Unfortunately my experience didn’t quite live up to that glowing review.
label of kirkland champagne

The back label of the Kirkland Brut Champagne.

I was originally planning to share my thoughts about the Kirkland Champagne as a 60 Second Review. But instead I think I need to talk about the risks of buying blindly on the recommendations of critics and wine writers.

At the end of this post I’ll give my take on the Kirkland Champagne. But I’ll blanket it with the same caveats that I’m going to discuss below.

First, let me say that this is not about bashing another blogger.

While I’m going to be disagreeing with a bit of Bargreen’s assessment of the Kirkland Signature Brut Champagne, I’ve been a big fan of his work on the Washington Wine Blog.

Among some of my favorite posts have been his interviews with wine industry insiders like:

Kit Singh of Lauren Ashton
Benjamin Smith of Cadence
Jason Fox of Lagana Cellars
Master of Wine Billo Naravane of Rasa Vineyards
Brooke Robertson of Delmas
Nina Buty of Buty Winery

And many more.

Bargreen has a terrific sense of what’s happening in the world of wine–particularly in Washington. He seeks out the people who are shaping the scene and produces content that is well worth following.

My intent is not to quibble about differences in tasting notes. Taste is highly subjective and personal. From one taster to the next, you are just as likely to agree with someone as you are to disagree.

And that’s precisely the point.

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

This is especially true with professional critics. It doesn’t matter how esteemed their careers or opinions are. The tastes of critics like James Suckling (pictured) may be quite different than yours.

When you buy a wine based on a newspaper, magazine or blog review, you’re essentially gambling on how likely your tastes will align with the reviewers. And I’m not talking Somm Game gambling here. Because with written reviews (as opposed to personal recommendations from a sommelier or wine steward), you really are going out on a ledge.

The author of a wine review is writing solely from the perspective of their tastes and their opinions. They’re not standing in front of you, listening to you describe the kind of wines that you like or don’t like. They’re not acting like a sommelier or wine steward, piecing together clues to recommend something that they feel confident that you’re going to enjoy.

The reviewer may have a tremendous palate with lots of experience tasting a vast array of wines. But when it comes to recommendations published in articles, blogs, “Best of…” and “Top Whatever” lists, your tastes and your opinions do not enter the reviewer’s equation whatsoever.

Yet it is your wallet that is buying the wine. Plus, either your mouth or your kitchen drain is going to end up with the contents of that bottle.

When you buy off of reviews, what are the odds that you’re going to absolutely love the wine?

I would say about 25% or a quarter of the time. For another quarter, it’s likely to be a complete whiff.

But for the majority of the recommendations you buy, the results will be in the middle of don’t love, but don’t hate or what I call “Meh wines”.

Photo by Katy Warner from Orlando, FL, USA. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD text

And then you got to figure out if it’s worth eating at McDonald’s again to redeem your small fry.

Getting a “Meh wine” is certainly not the end of the world.

It’s kind of like playing McDonald’s Monopoly where you pull off a tab and win a small fry. You didn’t lose per se, but you really didn’t win either. You essentially got a token of a prize and with a “Meh wine” you end up with a token of an experience–something drinkable but not much more.

Now ask yourself. How much money and time do you want to spend on “Meh wines”?

Can You Hedge Your Bets?

You most definitely can. But to do that, you need to think more like a bettor at the horse races.

1.) Do Your Homework. Admittedly, a good chunk of this is trial and error. The only way to increase your odds for successful drinking is to learn how your palate aligns with the reviewers. Paying attention to how many Hits/Misses/Mehs you get with a certain reviewer will key you in on if it’s worth the gamble. Even this is not absolute. There still may be wines that you don’t completely jive with. But, at the very least, you’ll be able to weed out more of the misses and the mehs.

Photo by Ronnie Macdonald from Chelmsford, United Kingdom. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

Though there is some truth to the old Will Rogers’ quote: “You know horses are smarter than people. You never heard of a horse going broke betting on people.”

2.) Pay Attention To The Jockeys–i.e. the wineries who made the wine. Often this is even better than betting on the horse. If you’ve had past experiences enjoying a winery’s wines, your bet just got a whole lot better. Because now you’re not really taking a blind recommendation from a reviewer but rather letting your own palate and experience have a say.

3.) Don’t Bet Big On An Unknown. Buying blindly on a review is never an occasion to buy a case. It doesn’t matter what high score or glowing review it got or how killer of a deal it looks like. It could still wind up being a colossal dud. You’re far better off taking a flyer on a single bottle to try first. Even though I really loved the idea of a $20 Champagne to drink all month, I am so grateful that I only spent $20 on the Kirkland Brut instead of a couple hundred.

4.) Spread Out Your Risk. Don’t bet it all on one wine. While I’m a huge supporter of trying new things, it’s always a good strategy to spread your bets out between long-shots mixed with a few favorites. Go ahead and take a chance on that new bottle, but also pick up something that is more of a sure bet just in case.

A Personal Note

Since I do reviews here on the blog, I hope all my readers take the above to heart and apply these strategies to my recommendations as well.

My favorite wines might only hit a 25% jackpot with you–or even less. Our tastes could be polar opposites and that is perfectly fine. My hope is that with the Geekery tidbits and other posts, you’re still finding resources that’ll help you find bottles you enjoy.

In the end, finding great wines that give you pleasure is the only thing that matters. Life is too short to drink “Meh wines”.

Now About That Kirkland Champagne

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

Lots of citrus notes in this Champagne but they’re more on the bitter green side like unripe pomelos.

Medium intensity nose. Definitely citrus driven but more bitter green citrus notes like unripe pomelo and Bergamot orange. Noticeable yeasty notes reminds me of raw Pillsbury buttermilk biscuit dough.

On the palate, those green citrus notes carry through but they fade pretty quickly. It’s definitely the dough notes that dominate but they taste much sweeter than the nose would have suggested. I couldn’t find the exact dosage but it’s certainly on the sweeter side of brut–likely 10-12 g/l.

The sweet dough with citrus flavors makes me think they were trying to go for the Veuve Clicquot style. However, the medium-plus acidity and moderate mousse has a tangy edge (like Bargreen’s sourdough) that doesn’t quite match the creamy mouthfeel that trademarks Veuve. The finish does have a hint of dustiness but is very short.

The Verdict

At $20, this isn’t a horrible wine. It’s definitely drinkable. If it’s aiming to be a budget Veuve Yellow Label for half the price then it’s not that far off. But it certainly tastes like a half-price “Meh” version of Veuve.

Levert Freres

While I might slightly give the nod to the regular Brut, the rose Cremant de Bourgogne from Levert Freres is also quite delicious for less than $20.

However, this is not “a one-of-a-kind value” by any stretch of the imagination.

There are so many stronger bottles of sparkling wines under $20–most notably the many available Cremants from Burgundy, Alsace and the Loire. These include wines like Levert Freres, Louis Bouillot, Albrecht, Gratien & Meyer and Champalou. Often these wines are aged as long as nonvintage Champagne (15 months) and many times much longer.

These Cremants may not have the magical “C-word” on the label like the Kirkland Brut but they are far more Champagne-like.

Then in the US, we have producers like Gruet, Jacqueline Leonne, Trevari and Roederer Estate who make very solid bottles in the $15-20 range. And, of course, Cava has some tremendous bangs for the buck with the Insito, Juve & Camps and Anna de Codorniu being highly reliable sparklers.

Champagne Dreams With a Budget-Friendly Reality

If you want to go Champagne, paying just a little bit more will give you huge quality dividends above the Kirkland Brut.

Bargreen’s article mentions the Feuillatte Blue Label that is often around $27-29 during holidays. Then there is the Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial ($33-36), Petrois Moriset Cuvee ($30-33), Moutard Grand Cuvee ($30-33) Chanoine Frères Grande Reserve ($33-35), Montaudon Brut ($32-35), Pommery Brut Royal ($33-36) and Laurent Perrier La Cuvee ($33-36).

And if you really want a slightly cheaper Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label, the Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top hits those notes better than the Kirkland Brut does in the $33-36 range.

I’m sure you can find even more under $40 Champagne or under $20 sparkling wine options checking out your local wine shop. Plus, you can talk with a wine steward and let them know what you like or don’t like.

That way you’re more likely to go home with a Secretariat, Justify or American Pharoah than you would betting on “Meh”.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

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.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Geek Notes — Insider’s Peek Into Champagne

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

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

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

Notes From The Wines of Champagne

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

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

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

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

Grand Cru and Growers
 Jean Fannière Grand Cru Champagne

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s kind of the point.

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

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

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

Sparkling Wine Making From the Wine & Spirit Education Trust

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

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

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

My Notes From Sparkling Wine Making

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Into The Nitty-Gritty

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

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

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

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

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Who makes your Supermarket Wine? (A Running List)

Sept 2018 update: If I come across new connections that haven’t been widely publish I will update this page. But I’d like to direct folks interested in this info to Elizabeth Schneider’s way more user-friendly and searchable list on her Wine For Normal People blog. It’s also regularly updated and is a fantastic resource that is worth bookmarking.

Beverage Dynamics released their report this month of The Fastest Growing Wine Brands and Top Trends of 2017.

One of the most glaring features of the report is how often you see the names Constellation Brands, E & J Gallo, The Wine Group and more appear in the rankings with their multitude of different brands. As I described in my post The Facade of Choice, when you walk the wine department of your typical grocery store the vast majority of the wines you see are going to be made by the same handful of companies.

It’s important for consumers to be aware of just how artificially limited their choices really are–especially because consumers should have choices when there are over 4000 wineries in California, over 700 each in Washington and Oregon and tens of thousands more across the globe.

Yet the average wine drinker is only ever going to see a fraction of a percent of these wines–especially those of us in the US. This is not just because our archaic three-tier distribution system severely limits consumers’ access to wine but also because of the wave of consolidations among large wine distributors.

Consolidation of Choices
Photo by Tatsuo Yamashita. Uploaded on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

To the best of my knowledge, General Mills and Unilever are not in the wine business….yet.

For the sake of efficiency (and profits) these large distributors tend to focus on the big clients in their portfolios–the Constellations and the Gallos. They can back up a trailer to a warehouse and load in pallets of “different wines” with different labels from all across the globe and then take that trailer right to the major grocery chains. With about 42% of the “off premise” wine (as opposed to on-premise restaurant purchases) in the US being bought at supermarkets, every consumer should take a hard look at how limited their options really are.

In some cases, you have more true options in the yogurt section than you do in the wine department.

For a couple years now I’ve been keeping an Excel spreadsheet of the various brands I’ve came across and which mega-corporation they’re made by. This is FAR from an exhaustive list and has room for a lot of expansion. Plus with the way that winery brands get bought and sold almost like trading cards it will probably be outdated by the time I hit publish. If you know of any additions or errors, please post in the comments.

Note some of the names are linked to the companies by exclusive distribution agreements.

Constellation Brands

7 Moons
Alice White
Arbor Mist
Black Box
Blackstone
Charles Smith Wines
Clos du Bois
Cooks
Cooper & Thief
Diseno
Dreaming Tree
Drylands
Estancia
Franciscian Estate
Hogue
Inniskillian
J. Roget
Jackson Triggs
Kim Crawford
Manischewitz
Mark West
Meiomi
Robert Mondavi
Monkey Bay
Mount Veeder
Naked Grape
Night Harvest
Nk’Mip
Nobilo
Paso Creek
Paul Masson
Prisoner
Primal Roots
Ravenswood
Red Guitar
Rex Goliath
Rioja Vega
Ruffino
Schrader
Simi
Simply Naked
Taylor Dessert
Thorny Rose
Toasted Head
The Prisoner
Vendange
Wild Horse
Woodbridge

E & J Gallo

Alamos
Allegrini
Andre
Apothic
Ballatore
Barefoot
Bella Sera
Bodega Elena de Mendoza
Boone’s Farm
Bran Caia
Bridlewood
Carlo Rossi
Carnivor
Chocolate Rouge
Clarendon Hills
Columbia Winery
Covey Run
Dancing Bull
DaVinci
Dark Horse
Don Miguel Gascon
Ecco Domani
Edna Valley Vineyard
Fairbanks
Frei Brothers
Gallo of Sonoma
Ghost Pines
J Vineyards
La Marca
Laguna
Las Rocas
Liberty Creek
Livingston Cellars
Locations
Louis Martini
MacMurray Ranch
Madria Sangria
Martin Codax
Maso Canali
McWilliams
Mia Dolcea
Mirassou
Orin Swift
Peter Vella
Pieropan
Polka Dot
Prophecy
Rancho Zabaco
Red Bicyclette
Red Rock
Redwood Creek
Sheffield Cellars
Starborough
Souverain
Talbott
The Naked Grape
Tisdale
Winking Owl
Turning Leaf
Vin Vault
Whitehaven
Wild Vines
William Hill Estate

Brown-Foreman

Sonoma Cutrer
Korbel Sparkling wine

Delicato Family Vineyards

Black Stallion
Bota Box
Brazin
Diora
Domino
Gnarly Head
Irony
Night Owl
Noble Vines
Twisted Wines
Z. Alexander Brown

Terlato Wines

Boutari
Bodega Tamari
Chimney Rock
Domaine Tournon
Ernie Els Wines
Federalist
Hanna
Josmeyer
Il Poggione
Luke Donald
Markham
Mischief & Mayhem
Rochioli
Rutherford Hill
Santa Margherita
Seven Daughters
Sokol Blosser
Tangley Oaks

Precept Brands

Alder Ridge
Browne Family
Canoe Ridge Vineyard
Cavatappi
Chocolate Shop
Gruet
House Wine
Pendulum
Primarius
Red Knot
Ross Andrews
Sagelands
Sawtooth
Shingleback
Ste. Chappelle
Waitsburg Cellars
Washington Hills
Waterbrook
Wild Meadows
Willow Crest

Vintage Wine Estates

B.R. Cohn
Buried Cane
Cameron Hughes
Cartlidge & Browne
Cherry Pie
Clayhouse Wines
Clos Pegase
Cosentino Winery
Cowgirl Sisterhood
Delectus Winery
Firesteed
Game of Thrones
Girard
Girl & Dragon
Gouguenheim
Horseplay
If You See Kay
Layer Cake
Middle Sister
Monogamy
Promisqous
Purple Cowboy
Qupé
Sonoma Coast Vineyards
Swanson
Tamarack Cellars
Viansa Sonoma
Windsor
Wine Sisterhood

Ste Michelle Wine Estates

14 Hands
Chateau Ste Michelle
Col Solare
Columbia Crest
Conn Creek
Erath
Merf
Northstar
O Wines
Patz & Hall
Red Diamond
Seven Falls
Snoqualmie
Spring Valley Vineyard
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
Stimson
Tenet/Pundit wines
Vila Mt. Eden
Villa Maria

Crimson Wine Group

Archery Summit
Chamisal
Double Canyon
Forefront
Pine Ridge
Seghesio
Seven Hills Winery

Jackson Family Estates

Arrowood
Arcanum
Byron
Cambria
Cardinale
Carmel Road
Copain
Edmeades
Freemark Abbey
Gran Moraine
Hickinbotham
Kendall Jackson
La Crema
La Jota
Lokoya
Matanzas Creek
Mt. Brave
Murphy-Goode
Penner-Ash
Siduri
Silver Palm
Stonestreet
Tenuta di Arceno
Yangarra Estate
Zena Crown
Wild Ridge

Vina Concha y Toro

Almaviva
Bonterra
Casillero del Diablo
Concha y Toro
Cono Sur
Don Melchior
Fetzer
Five Rivers
Jekel
Little Black Dress
Trivento

The Wine Group

13 Celsius
Almaden
AVA Grace
Benzinger
Big House
Chloe
Concannon
Corbett Canyon
Cupcake
Fish Eye
FlipFlop
Foxhorn
Franzia
Glen Ellen
Herding Cats
Insurrection
Love Noir
Mogen David
Seven Deadly Zins
Slow Press
Pinot Evil
Stave & Steel

Treasury Wine Estates

19 Crimes
Acacia
Beaulieu Vineyards
Beringer
Butterfly Kiss
BV Coastal
Cellar 8
Ch. St Jean
Chalone
Colores del Sol
Crème de Lys
Dynamite Vineyards
Etude
Gabbiano
Greg Norman
Hewitt Vineyard
Lindeman
Matua
Meridian
New Harbor
Once Upon a Vine
Penfolds
Provenance
Rosemount
Rosenblum Cellars
Seaview
Sledgehammer
Snap Dragon
Souverain
St. Clement
Stags’ Leap Winery
Stark Raving
Sterling
The Walking Dead
Uppercut
Wolf Blass
Wynns Coonawarra

Bronco Wine Company

Black Opal
Carmenet
Cellar Four 79
Century Cellars
Charles Shaw
Crane Lake
Colores del Sol
Estrella
Forest Glen
Forestville
Gravel Bar
Great American Wine Co.
Hacienda
Little Penguin
Montpellier
Quail Ridge
Rare Earth
Robert Hall
Sea Ridge
Stone Cellars

(LVMH) Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey

Bodega Numanthia
Cheval Blanc
Cheval de Andes
Cloudy Bay
Dom Perignon
Domaine Chandon
D’yquem
Krug
Mercier
Moet & Chandon
Newton Vineyard
Ruinart
Terrazas de Los Andes
Veuve Clicquot

Trinchero Estates

Bandit
Charles & Charles
Dona Paula
Duck Commander
Fancy Pants
Folie a Deux
Fre
Joel Gott
Los Cardos
Menage a Trois
Montevina
Napa Cellars
Newman’s Own
Pomelo
SeaGlass
Sutter Home
Sycamore Lane
The SHOW

Deutsch Family Brands

Cave de Lugny
Clos de los Siete
Enza
Eppa
Fleurs de Praire
Hob Nob
Joseph Carr
Josh Cellars
Kunde Family
Peter Lehmann
Ramon Bilbao
Ruta 22
Skyfall
The Calling
The Crossing
Villa Pozzi

Guarachi Wine Partners

Black Ink
Castillo de Monseran
Guarachi
Kaiken
Nobilissima
Santa Ema
Surf-Swim
Tensley
Tenshen

Foley Family Wines

Acrobat
Awatere Pass
Butterfield Station
Chalk Hill Winery
Chalone Vineyard
Clifford Bay
Dashwood
EOS
Firestone
Foley Johnson
Four Sisters
Goldwater
Guenoc
Lancaster Estate
Lincourt
Lucien Albrecht
Merus
Nieto Senetiner
Pebble Row
Pepperwood Grove
Piccini
Poizin
Roth
Sebastini
Smoking Loon
Tahbilk
The Four Graces
Three Rivers Winery
Wayne Gretzky

Pernod Ricard

Brancott
Campo Viejo
Graffigna
Jacob’s Creek
Kenwood
Stoneliegh
George Wyndham

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

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.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

What’s fine (and not so fine) about Vegan Wines

Photo by www.Pixel.la Free Stock Photos. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

Veganism is described as one of the fastest growing lifestyle movements in the world. Some estimates claim that in the United states alone, there was a 500% increase between 2014 and 2017 in the number of Americans (around 19 million) identifying as vegan.

For the wine industry, that is a sizable demographic that retailers and wineries have value in marketing to.

So what makes a wine “vegan-friendly”?

For the most part, veganism is a code of conduct that avoids using any animal products or by products as well as anything that has been tested on animals. There are various reasons why people adopt veganism but often ethical concerns about the treatment of animals and impact on the environment are cited.

While wine is often assumed to be vegan, the use of animal-based fining agents such as casein (milk protein), albumin (egg whites), isinglass (fish bladders) and gelatin (animal collagen) in winemaking is problematic for many vegans.

Let’s Talk About Fining Agents

As Alison Crowe notes in The Wine Maker’s Answer Book, fining agents are used to help clarify and stabilize wine by binding to molecules such as proteins and excess tannins. These are items that can cause unsightly haze in the bottle, aggressive bitterness on the palate, off odors and flavors. The agent binds to the target molecule to form larger structures that eventually precipitates and settles to the bottom of tank or barrel as sediment.

Bruce W. Zoecklein et. al in Wine Analysis and Production classified the various fining agents into 8 categories based on their nature.

Photo by self. Uploaded as User:Agne27 to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Isinglass and bentonite fining trials.

1.) Earths like bentonite and kaolin
2.) Proteins like the animal based ones above
3.) Polysaccharides like gum arabic and Sparkolloid
4.) Carbons like activated carbon
5.) Synthetic polymers like polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (or PVPP)
6.) Silica gels like silicon dioxide or Kieselsol
7.) Tannins often derived from insect galls on oak leaves though oak chip fining can also fall into this category.
8.) Others which includes both enzymatic fining (more fining aids rather than fining agents) and chelators that assist in the removal of metals such as “blue fining” with potassium ferrocyanide (illegal to use in the United States).

The different fining agents work on principles of electrical charge (like positively charged gelatin reacting with negatively charged tannins), bond formation (like the carbonyl group of PVPP bonding with the hydroxyl group of tannins) and by absorption/adsorption (like activated carbon absorbing off odors or bentonite adsorbing proteins).

There are positive and negative attributes to each fining agent with no one fining agent being perfect for every situation.

Animal-based Fining Agents

Egg whites (Albumin)

Used primarily to remove excess tannins. Works by forming hydrogen bonds with the hydroxyl groups of tannins. Compared to other fining agents like gelatin, albumin tends to remove less positive flavor and aroma traits. Egg whites have a long history of use in winemaking in places like Bordeaux and Burgundy. The usual addition is 1 to 3 egg whites per 225L (59 gallon) barrel.

Casein (Milk protein)

Used primarily to remove browning or pink color in white wine. Can also be used to remove some off odors. Works by adsorption and attracting negatively charged particles. Like with egg whites, it has a long history of use in wine production, particularly with the great white wines of Burgundy. It also has the benefit of reducing the concentration of iron and copper in wine. In red wines, it can negatively impact the wine by removing the polyphenol resveratrol that has been associated with various health benefits.

Gelatin (derived from the boiling of animal tissues like bones and tendons)

Used primarily to remove excess tannins. It has a positive charge that reacts to the negative charge of harsh tannins. It can be prone to over-fining that can strip a wine of positive flavors and aromas.

A heat stability trial for rose wines that have been fined with isinglass.

Isinglass (derived from the air bladder of fish like sturgeons)

Used primarily to help clarifying wines, remove excess tannins and to “unmask” or bring out varietal character.

Chitosan (derived from chitin in the exoskeleton of crustaceans)

Used primarily to remove haze causing proteins from white wines. A positively charged agent, it often needs to be paired with a negatively charged fining agent like Kieselsol to be most effective.

Blood Albumen (derived from the blood of ox and cattle)

Historically used but illegal in the United states, France and several other countries.

Vegan-friendly Alternatives

The website Barnivore is a database of wines and other liquors that have been vetted by users to be either “vegan-friendly” or not. In answering queries about their use of animal based fining agents, many wineries share their alternative methods.

Photo by self. Uploaded as User:Agne27 to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Letting the wine settle and clarify on its own before racking into another container is one method to avoid using fining agents.

One common method is the use of time and gravity to let the wine settle and clear out on its own. This is the technique used by Baldacci in the Stags Leap District and many other wineries. Depending on several factors like the health of the grapes, method of pressing, pH and temperature, this method could take several months and even then the wine might not be completely stable. Some wineries facilitate this method with the use of mechanical centrifuges and ultra-filtration but these carry the risk of being overly aggressive and potentially stripping the wine of positive flavor and aroma attributes.

Along those lines, many wineries adopt a hands-off method of not fining or filtering their wines at all. This is the method used by many high-end wine producers like Black Cordon and Kapcsandy in Napa Valley. This does carry the risk of haze and sediment developing in the bottle. However, the risk is often presented to consumers as a trade-off for having potentially more complex and flavorful wines.

Bentonite and Yeast Fining
Photo by self. Uploaded as User:Agne27 to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The lees sediment and volume loss from bentonite can be significant (between 5-10%). Using counter-fining agents like isinglass can help with lees compaction but would obviously make the wine not vegan-friendly.

The most used “vegan-friendly” fining agent is bentonite. This is a type of clay that can dramatically swell in size to adsorb protein molecules. This is the method used by wineries like Chinook in Washington State, Ideology in Napa Valley, Spier in South Africa and many others. One big drawback is that it causes significant loss of wine volume due to the heavy sediment it creates. As much as 5-10% of volume could be lost. Roger B. Boulton et al notes in Principles and Practices of Winemaking that these voluminous bentonite lees also create a large amount of solid waste that can have an environmental impact (such as sealing percolation ponds) if not properly disposed. In red wine, there is also a risk of color loss.

Some wineries like Amici use the technique of “yeast fining” for wines like their 2013 Russian River Pinot noir. This involves adding fresh yeast to a wine.  The cell walls of the yeast contain about 30% positively charged proteins. These can then adsorb many polyphenols and compounds which cause off odors. It brings the risk of the yeast breaking down as lees, releasing sulfur compounds and enhancing reductive notes. Also, if not removed by filtration, the yeast in the bottle can start re-fermenting any residual sugars. This would cause spritziness in what is, otherwise, supposed to be a non-sparkling wine.

PVPP and Other Methods

PVPP is a synthetic polymer that can remove bitter tannins and brown discoloration from white wines. Like casein, it can remove the polyphenol resveratrol from red wines. There is also a risk of overfining. This is because the PVPP also binds to desirable tannins and anthocyanins needed for structure and color.

Sparkalloid is a blend of polysaccharides and diatomaceous earth (fossilized algae) that can be used to clarify white wines. It does take significant time to eventually settle. This also creates a fair amount of waste with the DE that requires proper disposal.

Activated Carbon can be used to remove off-odors such as mercaptans (rotten eggs, burnt match). It does have the risk of overly oxidizing wine as well as stripping color and resveratrol from red wines.

New Developments on the Horizon

Ronald S. Jackson notes in Wine Science that fears about the prions potentially in gelatin and “Mad Cow” disease, encouraged studies into the use of plant proteins like wheat gluten as a substitute for gelatin. (Note: most gelatin used in US winemaking is derived from pigs rather than cows) Likewise, a New Jersey company has been experimenting with using pea proteins in conjunction with bentonite and silica as an alternative to gelatin.

Interest in food allergies have also spurned innovations with Scott Labs developing a technique to isolated chitosan from the fungus Aspergillus niger (instead of shellfish and crustaceans) that can be used as a fining agent.

The California based ATP Group has developed a way to extract tannin powder for fining from white wine grapes instead of insect galls to help soften tannins.

In 2016, a Swiss company announced that they were experimenting with the use of UV light to soften tannins in lieu of using animal-based protein fining agents.

The Biodynamic Quandary

Are wines produced from fruit sourced from biodynamic vineyards truly “vegan-friendly”? Several of the “preparations” used in biodynamic viticulture require the use of animal products such as cow horns (BD 500 and 501), stomachs, intestines and bladders.

In an anecdotal account of a visit with the vineyard manager of the biodynamic Pinot noir producer Sea Smoke, Kirsten Georgi (The Armchair Sommelier), describes how the “Biodynamic approach” to removing gophers without the use of poisons or chemicals involves trapping several gophers, killing them, burning their ashes and spreading those ashes over the vineyard during winter solstice as a means to “scare off” the rest of the gophers. This method of “peppering” vineyards with the ashes of pests is not unique to Sea Smoke with recipes on biodynamic websites recommending its use for everything from weeds, snails and insects to mice, rats, rabbits and opossum.

PETA Approved?
Photo by Mark Smith. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Manure composting at a biodynamic vineyard in Tasmania.

Despite these practices, organizations like PETA recommend biodynamic wineries as “vegan friendly”. The UK website Vegan Wines Online notes that while “…natural animal products can however be used in the growing process all the biodynamic wines they sell are somehow suitable for vegans.

Even organic viticulture could be problematic with the use of animal-derived bone and blood meal being used in lieu of chemical fertilizers. There is even debate if manure, as an animal by-product, is acceptable. Like honey and milk, manure doesn’t require killing the animal but still often requires farming to acquire.

What about the presence of insects in healthy and vibrant organic vineyards? Does that makes a wine less “Vegan-friendly”? Eschewing the use of chemicals often means more insects as MOG (material other than grapes). Absent expensive sorting these bugs can get caught up in the harvest. On the Barnivore website, Calcareous Vineyard in Paso Robles expressed this reservation though their wines were still classified as “vegan friendly”.

More Manipulated=More Vegan-friendly?

Are the most “vegan-friendly” vineyards the ones being farmed with heavy saturation of pesticides and chemical fertilizers? It seems like it when you compare it to organic and biodynamic vineyards with high insect MOG and animal-derived fertilizers.

Mass produced wines like the PETA recommended Sutter Home and Moët & Chandon often employ these conventional, chemical dependent styles of viticulture.

While avoiding using animal-based fining agents to remove excess tannins and haze forming proteins, big mega-corps can use other tricks to manipulate the wine with things like lab designed enzymes, oak adjuncts and Mega Purple which will “smooth out” bitter tannins and cover up off-flavors.

Just a single drop of Mega Purple had this white Riesling looking and smelling like a Grenache rose. Crazy stuff.

Sure, Charles Shaw reds (Two Buck Chuck), Sutter Home Cabernet Sauvignon, Meiomi Pinot noir and Yellow Tail reds are made without animal fining agents but should vegans (and really all wine drinkers) be concerned with what other products are being used to make these wines?

And while it can be exciting to see advances in the use of pea proteins and fining agents derived from fungi like Aspergillus niger, its worth asking if these are only adding to the laundry list of the 60+ (and counting) additives that can be used in winemaking–taking it even further away from being just “fermented grapes”?

Now What?

While I’m not vegan myself, I wholeheartedly support anyone that chooses to live their life by convictions. I respect their ethical concerns for the treatment of animals.  I also share their concerns about the environment animal products have. It’s not my wish to stress-out vegans who just want to relax and enjoy a nice bottle of wine.

I do believe it is fair to think about the big picture involved in many seemingly “vegan-friendly” wineries.  Often the viticulture and winemaking practices they use may not align with the ideals of many vegans.

However, it is clear from sites like Barnivore that there are tons of environmentally conscious wineries (many of which are even owned by vegans) that are producing vegan-friendly wines. They may not be the easiest to find at grocery stores or restaurant wine lists that can be dominated by the portfolios of the large mega-corps but these often small family-owned wineries are well worth seeking out and supporting.

And that’s something that I think both vegans and non-vegans can drink to.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

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!

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Champagne Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s look at some of the clues.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Clue #3 – They are a négociant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My “decent” Champagne guides

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mystery solved?

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

Plus, the battery acid may add some character.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!