Tag Archives: négociant

60 Second Wine Review — Digby Fine English Brut

It’s English Wine Week, so I’m sharing a few quick thoughts on the non-vintage Digby Fine English Brut sparkling wine.

Digby Fine English Brut

The Geekery

American Trevor Clough and Englishman Jason Humphries founded Digby Fine English in 2013 as a negociant house in the style of many Champagne firms. Purchasing wine (and later fruit) from several sources, they released a 2009 vintage brut and rosé that year.

Clough and Humphries named their venture in honor of the 17th-century philosopher and scientist Sir Kenelm Digby.  Also an inventor, Digby pioneered several new techniques in glassmaking–essentially inventing the modern wine bottle.

The wines are made at Wiston Estate Winery by Irish winemaker Dermot Sugrue. Vineyards for the NV Brut were sourced from the North and South Downs region of Kent as well as Sussex and Hampshire.

The non-vintage Brut is 40% Pinot noir, 35% Chardonnay and 25% Pinot Meunier with the Chardonnay seeing an additional 18 months of lees contact before being used in the blend. The finished wine was aged 24 months in the bottle and then disgorged with a 12 g/l dosage. Around 25,000 bottles were produced.

The Wine

Photo By Gaetan Lee - originally posted to Flickr as French tart, CC BY 2.0

Some apple tart pastry flavors but not much more.

Medium intensity nose. Appley with some toasted tart pastry.

On the palate, the apple pastry notes carry through with a little subtle earthiness as well. Lively mousse and acidity complement the weighty feel of the wine. However, the flavors and the finish quickly fade.

The Verdict

In general, I’m a huge fan of English sparklers and have had several that go toe-to-toe with quality Champagne. Chapel Down is probably my favorite. But they haven’t been the easiest to find in the US and I will admit that this one (which I got at a Seattle wine shop for $50 USD) was rather underwhelming.

In the UK, this is direct from the producer at £30.99 (about $40 USD) with some merchants selling it closer to $30 USD. That is a much better price point for this quality level. Without a doubt, US consumers are paying a premium for the novelty.

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Getting Geeky with Rubus Barossa Shiraz

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2014 Rubus Shiraz from the Barossa.

The Background

Rubus is a negociant label of the importing firm Kysela Pere et Fils that was founded by Master Sommelier Fran Kysela.

Prior to earning his MS in 1989 and starting his firm in 1994, Kysela previously worked for California wineries Fetzer and Gallo as well as importers Kermit Lynch and Weygandt-Metzler. In his more than 40 years in the wine business, Fran Kysela has earned numerous awards including 2013 Importer of the Year from Wine Enthusiast magazine.

His wine import portfolio represents over 200 producers, including notable wineries such as Abeja, Accordini Igino, Alain Jaume, Avennia, Bressia, Bonny Doon, Buty, Betz, Chakana, Cholila Ranch, Clos de Sixte, Domaine Mordoree, Finca Sobreno, Gravas, Hahn, Jip Jip Rocks, La Petite Frog, Levendi, Long Shadows, Loring, Maipe, Marcassin, Mas Sinen, Maysara, Milton Park, Montebuena, Mt. Monster, Pago de Carraovejas, Palacio de Bornos, Paradigm, Patton Valley, Poggio Nardone, Quilceda Creek, Rebuli, Reverdy, Rinaldi, Segries, St. James Winery, Tamarack, Thorn Clarke, Tiza, Tres Ojos, Valminor and Vinsacro among many others.

The first wine released under the Rubus label was in 1997 with 1200 cases of an Amador County Zinfandel. Since then the brand has expanded to include Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, Chardonnay from Colchagua Valley in Chile, Pinot noir from the Waipara Valley in New Zealand, Prieto Picudo from Tierra de León in Spain, a Grenache-based Vin Gris from Corbières in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France as well as a Shiraz from the Barossa of South Australia.

All the wines bottled under the Rubus label are personally selected by Fran Kysela.

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

While the oak used for the Rubus Shiraz was entirely American, for half the barrels the staves were sent to France to be seasoned (air dried) and coopered in the French style.

The 2014 Rubus Shiraz was only the third release of a Shiraz from Kysela. A co-ferment of 98% Shiraz with 2% Viognier, the wine was aged 12 months in 100% American oak with half the barrels being seasoned and coopered in France. Around 2,000 cases were produced.

Instead of being labeled as the Geographical Indication (GI) of Barossa Valley, the 2014 Rubus is labeled as being from simply “Barossa” which Mike Desimone and Jeff Jenssen note in Wines of the Southern Hemisphere: The Complete Guide means that fruit from neighboring Eden Valley could have been blended in. Conversely, if a wine is labeled as being from the “Barossa Valley” then only 100% Barossa Valley fruit could be used.

The Origins of Syrah

In Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, co-authored by Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, it is noted that the origins of Syrah have been proven to be distinctly French despite myths attributing its origins to the Persian city of Shiraz in modern-day Iran.

Map from Rhône-Alpes map.png on Wikimedia Commons created by Utilisateur:Rinaldum. Derivations done by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

With Mondeuse Blanche native to the Savoie region (#4) and Dureza originating from the Ardèche (#1), it is likely that the cross-pollination that created Syrah happened somewhere in the Isère (#3) where Dureza is known to have reached.
The Drôme department (#2) includes the Northern Rhone wine region of Hermitage where there are written accounts of Syrah being grown here by at least the 1780s.

DNA analysis conducted in 1998 by Dr. Carole Meredith and others at UC-Davis have shown the parents of Syrah to be the Savoie wine grape Mondeuse blanche and the Ardèche variety Dureza. Both grapes were at one time cultivated in the department of Isère, southeast of Lyon, in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region with ampelographers speculating that this was the likely area that Syrah originated in.

Further research by José Vouillamoz has shown a potential parent-offspring relationship between Syrah’s parent Dureza and the Pinot grape meaning that potentially Pinot noir could be a grandparent variety to Syrah.

Additional research into the origins of Viognier has shown a parent-offspring relationship with Syrah’s other parent, Mondeuse blanche, and Viognier though it is not yet clear which variety is the parent and which is the offspring–partly because the other potential parent of Viognier hasn’t been identified yet. This means that Viognier could be either a half-sibling or a grandparent to Syrah.

Aussie Shiraz vs French Syrah

Syrah was first brought to Australia in 1832 by viticulturalist and “father of Australian wine” James Busby as part of a collection of 75 different grapevine varieties from Europe. Known initially as Hermitage and then Scyras it was first planted in New South Wales before spreading westward.

Today it is the most widely planted variety in Australia, accounting for around 45% of the yearly harvest. It is planted across the country with the Barossa Valley known for having some of the oldest vineyards of Shiraz in the world–including many pre-phylloxera plantings on their own rootstock.

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

The Barossa Valley

Among these old vine Shiraz plantings include Langmeil’s 1843 vineyard in Tanunda and Turkey Flat’s 1847 parcel planted by Johann August Frederick Fiedler. In neighboring Eden Valley, Henschke’s Hill of Grace has Shiraz plantings dating back to the 1860s.

Pioneered by German Lutheran settlers from Prussia and Silesia (in modern-day Poland), the Barossa Valley is home to numerous 6th generation family wine growers. Often traditionally aged in American oak, the style of Shiraz here is characterized by James Halliday in his Wine Atlas of Australia as “…lush, velvety and mouthfilling with flavors in the black cherry to blackberry spectrum, the tannins ripe and soft.”

The soils in the Barossa are mostly sandy and clay loam which will have varying water-retaining abilities in the hot Australian sun depending on the percentage and type of clay. This tends to produce concentrated wines with lower acidity and higher pH that contributes to the powerful and lush dark fruit typical of Aussie Shiraz.

In contrast, the mainly granite and schist-based soils of the Northern Rhone (particularly in Côte-Rôtie) produces wines that John Livingstone-Learmonth notes in The Wines of the Northern Rhône tend to be “… less intensely coloured–red rather than black–and much more sinewed. Their fruit is more stone and pebbly in texture, their tannins more upright and raw at the outset. Pepper tones are drier and more evident…”

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity. Noticeable oak with coconut and cinnamon. Certainly dark fruit like black cherries but there also seems to be some faint red fruit like red plums on the edges. Red flowers like dahlias add some intrigue.

Photo by Dinkum. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

While the oak and dark fruits certainly play a prominent role in this wine, I was very intrigued by some of the layers of potential complexity suggested by the red floral notes like dahlias on the nose.

On the palate the oak is still quite pronounced with creamy vanilla mouthfeel and dark chocolate joining the party. However, medium-plus acidity does add enough freshness and a mouthwatering component to keep this from being jammy. The ripe medium-plus tannins are soft but well structured holding up the full-bodied fruit. On the moderate-length finish there is a subtle herbal note (maybe eucalyptus) that isn’t quite defined but does add some complexity.

The Verdict

Overall, I wouldn’t describe this as a stereotypical “Big, bombastic Aussie Shiraz” that seems to dominant the shelves of the American market. No one would ever confuse this for something from Mollydooker or Glaetzer.

While definitely oaky and fruit-forward, this is a little more in the Penfolds style with an element of elegance and additional layers that I suspect could become even more complex with a few more years of bottle age. With its juicy acidity and structured tannins, I can easily see this going another 3 to 4 years in delivering ample pleasure.

At $20-25, this is a well-made Shiraz that would certainly appeal to many New World drinkers who like their wines fruity and ripe but not sweet or jammy.

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Wine Geek Notes 3/20/18 — Wine Fraud in Rhone, Robert Haas and Synthetic Yeast

Photo by Phillip Capper. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0
Here is what I’m reading today in the world of wine.

Interesting Tweets and Weblinks

Massive Rhône Valley Wine Fraud Reported by French Authorities from Suzanne Mustacich (@smustacich) of Wine Spectator (@WineSpectator)

This scandal has been making waves in the wine world for a couple days now but this report from Mustacich is the first I saw that named names–pointing to the négociant firm and bulk bottler Raphaël Michel. This is important because when consumers read headlines blaring that 66 million bottles or 15% of the Côtes du Rhônes produced from 2013-2016 were cheap swill passed off as higher AOCs, that naturally cast suspicion on every bottle of Rhone.

It also doesn’t help when publications like The Daily Mail use pictures of esteemed estates like Ch. Beaucastel and Clos de Papes as the illustration for their article that talks about Raphaël Michel’s CEO, Guillaume Ryckwaert’s, arrest back in August 2017.

With Wine Spectator getting the name of the real culprit out there, consumers should know that the Rhone wines made by established and small family producers are not part of this scandal. Unfortunately, it is not easy finding all the names of the bulk wine and négociant labels that Raphaël Michel produces (their eShop has only a few names) so the best advice for consumers is to do their homework. If you’re at a wine shop and see a Rhone wine from a producer you don’t recognize, Google them to see if they have an online presence that connects them to a real person or family behind the wine.

Buying guides like Master of Wine Benjamin Lewin’s (@BenLewinMW) on the wines and producers of the Northern and southern Rhone are also valuable resources.

Tablas Creek Founder Dies by Rupert Millar (@wineguroo) for The Drinks Business (@teamdb). Brought to my dash via Vino101 (@Vino101net)

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

Tablas Creek’s nursery in Paso Robles.

The death of Tablas Creek founder Robert Haas is a great loss for the industry and my condolences go out to the Tablas Creek family. The entire Tablas Creek operation is top notch and I recently charted my path to becoming a wine club member there in my post Wine Clubs Done Right.

Beyond just the establishment of Tablas Creek winery, Haas had far reaching influence in the Rhône Ranger movement by pioneering the introduction of several Rhone varieties to the US.

Haas and Tablas Creek did the heavy lifting in getting cuttings from Chateau Beaucastel through quarantine and TTB label approval for numerous varieties like Counoise, Terret noir, Grenache blanc, Picpoul and more. Additionally the high quality “Tablas Creek clones” of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre have populated the vineyards of highly acclaimed producers throughout the US.

For that we should all grab our favorite bottle of Rhone grapes (even better if it is Tablas Creek) and toast the amazing legacy of Robert Haas.

THE FUTURE OF FERMENTATION: THE ROLE OF SYNTHETIC YEAST IN WINEMAKING by Becca Yeamans Irwin (@TheAcademicWino) for Spirited Magazine. Brought to my dash via Wine & Spirits Guild (@WineGuild).

This was a very timely article for me as I just finished reading Clark Smith’s Postmodern Winemaking which deals with some of the philosophical issues and conflicts between improving wine technology, the Natural Wine movement and the winemakers caught in the middle who just want to make good wine.

I’m not going to add any commentary at this point because Smith’s book has given me a bit to chew on. It’s clear that there is still a lot of discussion to be had about the “Future of Fermentation” with Yeamans Irwin’s article adding some worthwhile insight into that dialogue.

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60 Second Wine Review — Gosset Petite Douceur Rose

A few quick thoughts on the non-vintage Gosset Petite Douceur Extra Dry Rosé Champagne.

The Geekery

Founded in 1584 by Pierre Gosset in the village of Aÿ, long before sparkling wine was produced in Champagne, Gosset is the oldest winery in the region. Since 1994, the négociant house has belonged to the Renaud-Cointreau group, owners of the Cognac house Frapin. Gosset makes around 100,000 cases a year.

According to Peter Liem in Champagne: The Essential Guide, Gosset is one of the few major houses (along with Lanson, Alfred Gratien and Vilmart & Cie) that ardently avoids having their base wines go through malolactic fermentation which is usually employed to soften the naturally high acidity of Champagnes, making the wines more approachable in their youth. Historically, Krug and Salon have kept a policy of not encouraging MLF but they don’t take steps to avoid it like Gosset and the other aforementioned houses with the use of temperature control, barrel hygiene, pH and sulfur adjustments.

The Petite Douceur Rosé is a blend of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot noir with 7% of Pinot being red wine added for color. The fruit was sourced from the Grand Cru Villages of Ambonnay, Avize, Bouzy and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and the Premier Cru village of Cumières located in the Vallée de la Marne. The Champagne was aged 3 years on the lees before being bottled with a 17 g/l dosage.

The Wine

Photo by Juhanson. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Fresh raspberry and vibrant acidity characterize this Champagne.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Mix of red fruits–strawberry and raspberry–and floral notes. Also a little orange peel.

The red fruits carry through the palate but what is most remarkable is how well balance it is for a sweet Extra Dry with 17 g/l dosage. The acidity is fresh and vibrant, perfectly matching the weight of the fruit and dosage. Smooth mouthfeel and long finish with some spice notes emerging.

The Verdict

At around $90-100, this is an exceptionally well made Champagne.

It tastes drier and more balanced than many Bruts north of the $100 mark and is a considerable jump in complexity from many $50-80 rose Champagnes.

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Thought Bubbles – How to Geek Out About Champagne

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

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

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

Deal? Alright, let’s have some fun.

1.) Start Popping Bottles!

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

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

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

Make friends with your local wine shop folks

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

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

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

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

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

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

But here is where it gets exciting.

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

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

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

Pay attention to sweetness and house style

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

By Kici, Released on Wikimedia Commons under public domain

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

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

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

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

Explore the Grand Crus and vineyard designated bottles

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

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

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

Well worth the hunt

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

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

2.) Great Reading Resources

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

A few favs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.) Next Level Geekery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even in your own backyard

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

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

So have fun and keep exploring!

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Book Reviews – Bursting Bubbles

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

Overview

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

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

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

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

Vineyards in the Grand Cru village of Mailly.

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

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

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

Some Things I Learned

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wines I Want to Try Because of This Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Reading Recommendations I Got From This Book

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

Worth Pondering Though

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

What Makes Great Champagne?

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

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

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

Top Shelf Gummy Bears Though…

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

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

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

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

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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.

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