Tag Archives: Peter Liem

Champagne Mystery — Who makes Drake’s Mod Sélection? And will it be worth it?

Ace of Spades, part II?

Photo by The Come Up Show. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Canadian rapper Drake and Brent Hocking (founder of DeLeón Tequila) are partnering to produce a new high-end Champagne called Mod Sélection. Right off the bat, the line-up will feature a $300 non-vintage Brut and a $400 NV Rosé.

That’s a hefty price tag for a Champagne house that is being created virtually out of thin air.

In comparison, consumers can pay $300-400 and get things like:

1996 Bollinger R.D. (Wine Searcher Average $328) aged ten years on the lees. Only 750 cases imported.

1996 Duval-Leroy Femme de Champagne (WS Ave $346) from 100% Grand Cru fruit that was aged 14 years on the lees. Only 1000 cases made.

Dom Perignon “P2” Brut, 2000 (WS Ave $351) aged 15 years on the lees.

Jacques Selosse Substance Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut (WS Ave $312) from a solera that started in 1986. Usually only around 250 cases released at a time.

Pierre Peters L’Etonnant Monsieur Victor (WS Ave $301) from 100% Grand Cru fruit, including the best parcels of Les Chétillons, aged as a perpetual cuvee (similar to solera) that started in 1988. Only around 150 cases imported with each release.

And tons more great Champagnes for a heck of a lot cheaper.

Plus, these are all houses with established track records. We can figure out the grape source and know how long these wines have been aged. We can also get a general sense of how limited and prestigious these wines truly are. Yet, Drake and Hocking want folks to pay an equivalent price for Champagnes that no-one knows anything about?

Even Ace of Spades had a bit of a backstory.

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

From $60 to $300, not a bad business deal for Cattier.

Offended by comments by the CEO of his-then favorite Champagne house, Roederer, the American rapper Jay Z began promoting a brand called Armand de Brignac in 2006.

The gold plated bottle, now known as “Ace of Spades”, was made by the Champagne house Cattier. The Champagne was essentially a rebranding of their Antique Gold line which previously sold for around $60.

But once Jay Z got involved, including acquiring partial ownership of the brand in 2014, the price of the Champagne skyrocketed to around $300 for the basic non-vintage brut, $450 for the NV Rosé and approximately $600 for the NV Blanc de Blancs.

Yeah, you can see what Drake is doing here.

But, again, consumers at least know about Cattier’s involvement. The brand is even prominently featured on their website.  While a négociant-firm that purchases grapes, the Cattier family does own over 30 ha (74 acres) of vines in the Montagne de Reims including the notable premier cru Clos du Moulin in Chigny-Les-Roses. For their top cuvee from the Clos, the house only produces around 25,000 bottles.

In the Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine, Tom Stevenson & Master of Wine Essi Avellan offer some more details about Armand de Brignac (presumably provided by Cattier). They note that across all the Ace of Spades wines, only around 3200 cases are produced. They also mention that at least the NV Brut is aged for around four years on lees.

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

Jean-Jacques and Alexandre Cattier who continue to operate their brand in addition to making Jay Z’s “Ace of Spades.”

 

Another Champagne Mystery

Perhaps more details about Mod Sélection will eventually come out. But it is clear right now that its proprietors are purely marketing it based on its association with a celebrity rapper. Still, I’m always down for a good mystery (especially when Champagne is involved), so I decided to see what I can dig up.

Like with Armand de Brignac/Ace of Spades and Cattier, Drake and Hocking are probably partnering with an already established Champagne house. They’re not going to buy vineyards, start aging stock and truly create a brand from scratch.

With a NV Champagne needing a legal minimum of 15 months aging on the lees before release, it’s very likely that the initial release of Mod Sélection is going to be a Champagne that was originally harvested and aged to be labeled as something else. Probably a Champagne that was going to be sold for a much lower price.

That is a big reason why the identity of the house will likely be kept under wraps.  But can we still figure out who makes Drake’s Champagne?

On the Mod Sélection website, details are scarce. However, we do get two solid clues that slip through the marketing flourish.

1.) They’re based in the Vallée de la Marne.
2.) They claim “a legacy” dating back to 1892.

Cracking into some of my Five Essential Books On Champagne, I can eliminate a lot of prospective houses. The Christie’s Encyclopedia is, in particular, really good at noting the location of many houses so I can focus in only on the ones based in the Vallée de la Marne.

Clue #1 – The Vallée de la Marne

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

Vineyards in the Grand Cru village of Aÿ–the most prestigious in the Vallée de la Marne.

This area is broken into three sub-regions. The most prestigious is the Grande Vallée de la Marne which is home to the Grand Cru village of Aÿ as well as several notable premier cru villages like Hautvillers, Cumières and Dizy.

The other two sub-regions are the Vallée de la Marne Rive Droite and Vallée de la Marne Rive Gauche (Right bank, Left Bank) which are home to autre cru villages that are ranked below premier cru.

Peter Liem’s book, Champagne, does an excellent job of explaining the differences between these sub-regions.

While it is possible that Mod Sélection’s mystery house is in one of the lesser Rive Droite or Rive Gauche villages, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and focus on the houses in the nine villages of the Grande Vallée de la Marne.

Clue #2 – Founding date 1892

Photo by Arnaud 25. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Bollinger wouldn’t even give James Bond his own made up Champagne house. It’s not likely that they would partner with Drake and not use their own label.

We can rule out major Champagne houses based in the Vallée de la Marne like Deutz, Jacquesson, Bollinger, Philipponnat and Billecart-Salmon because they have little reason to create a branding apart from their own. Plus, their founding dates don’t match up with Deutz (1838), Jacquesson (1798), Bollinger (1829), Philipponnat (1910) and Billecart (1818).

This clue is going to require more heavy digging since many Champagne books don’t list founding dates and sometimes even a winery’s website isn’t very forthcoming with details. Still, we can gradually start to eliminate notable Champagne houses and well-regarded growers like:

Gaston Chiquet (founded 1919)
Gonet-Medeville (founded 2000)
A.R. Lenoble (founded 1920)
Mousse Fils (founded 1923)
Bereche & Fils (founded 1847)
Gatinois (founded 1921)
Marc Hebrart (founded 1964)
Laherte-Freres (founded 1889)
Georges Laval (founded 1971)
R. Pouillon & Fils (founded 1947)
Tarlant (founded 1928)

But eventually, with a little bit of online sleuthing, I was able to come across at least one estate that fits our bill.
Photo by 2005 Zubro. Uplaoded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Vineyards in the premier cru village of Cumières in the Grande Vallée de la Marne. Is this the home of Drake’s $300+ Champagne?

Champagne Philippe Martin in Cumières. Founded 1892.  They produce around 12,000 to 80,000 bottles which range in price from 18 to 34 euros ($20-39 US dollars). While they apparently have a healthy enotourism operation, as far as I can tell, the wines of Champagne Philippe Martin have never been exported out of France.

This kinda aligns with the Mod Sélection description of partnering with a house whose “highly sought-after champagne had never been exported for sale to the general public.” Though you have to eye roll at the “highly sought-after” part.

Is this our mystery Mod Sélection house? Perhaps. There are still at least 30 other small growers that I need to investigate. But so far Champagne Philippe Martin is our most solid lead.

Will the Champagne be worth $300+?

I highly doubt it.

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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.

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Geek Notes — Five Essential Books On Champagne

Champagne is the benchmark for all sparkling wine. Any wine student studying for advance certifications needs to be able to explain what makes Champagne unique. They also should be familiar with important producers–both big houses and influential growers.

Important Champagne books

While there are certainly online resources available, few things top a great reference book that can be highlighted and annotated to your heart’s content.

One of the best tips for wine students (especially on a budget) is to check out the Used Book offerings on Amazon. Often you can find great deals on wine books that are just gently used. This lets you save your extra spending money for more wine to taste.

Since the prices of used books change depending on availability, I’m listing the current best price at time of writing. However, it is often a good idea to bookmark the page of a book that you’re interested in and check periodically to see if a better price becomes available.

Here are the five most essential books on Champagne that every wine student should have.

Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine by Tom Stevenson & Master of Wine Essi Avellan (Used starting at $29.97)

The Christie’s encyclopedia is ground zero for understanding the basics about Champagne (production methods, styles, grape varieties, etc). But, even better, it is a launching pad for understanding the world of sparkling wine at large and seeing how Champagne fits in that framework.

While Champagne will always be a big focus of most wine exams, as my friend Noelle Harman of Outwines discovered in her prep work for Unit 5 of the WSET Diploma, you do need to have a breadth of knowledge of other sparklers.

In her recent exam, not only was she blind tasted on a Prosecco and sparkling Shiraz from Barossa but she also had to answer theory questions on Crémant de Limoux and the transfer method that was developed for German Sekt but became hugely popular in Australia & New Zealand. While there are tons of books on Champagne, I’ve yet to find another book that extensively covers these other sparkling wines as well as the Christie’s encyclopedia.

Changes in the new edition
Chapel Down wine

Global warming has made England an exciting region for sparkling wine. The revised edition of Christie’s Encyclopedia has 17 page devoted to the sparklers of the British Isles.

Tom Stevenson wrote the first Christie’s Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine back in the late 1990s. That edition tallied 335 pages while the newest edition (2013) has 528 pages with more than half of those pages covering other notable sparkling wine regions like England, Franciacorta, Tasmania and more. The new edition also has a fresh perspective and feel with the addition of Champagne specialist Essi Avellan as a significant contributor.

In addition to covering the terroir and characteristics of more than 50 different regions, the Christie’s encyclopedia also includes over 1,600 producer profiles. The profiles are particularly helpful with the major Champagne houses as they go into detail about the “house style” and typical blend composition of many of their wines.

Champagne [Boxed Book & Map Set]: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region by Peter Liem. (Used starting $36.57)

The long time scribe of the outstanding site ChampagneGuide.net, Peter Liem is the first author I’ve came across that has taken a Burgundian approach towards examining the terroirs of Champagne.

For a region that is so dominated by big Champagne houses who blend fruit from dozens (if not hundreds) of sites, it’s easy to consider terroir an afterthought. After all, isn’t Champagne all about the blend?

But Champagne does have terroir and as grower Champagnes become more available, wine lovers across the globe are now able to taste the difference in a wine made from Cramant versus a wine made from Mailly.

In-depth Terroir
Pierre Gerbais Champagne

Several of the most delicious Champagnes I’ve had this year have came from the Côte des Bar–like this 100% Pinot blanc from Pierre Gerbais.
Yet, historically, this region has always been considered the “backwoods” of Champagne and is given very little attention in wine books.

Liem’s work goes far beyond just the the terroir of the 17 Grand Cru villages but deep into the difference among the different areas of the Côte des Blancs, Montagne de Reims, the Grande Vallée, the Vallée de la Marne, Côteaux Sud d’Épernay, Côteaux du Morin, Côte de Sézanne, Vitryat, Montgueux and the Côte des Bar.

Most books on Champagne don’t even acknowledge 6 of those 10 sub-regions of Champagne!

Not only does Liem discuss these differences but he highlights the producers and vineyards that are notable in each. No other book on Champagne goes to this level of detail or shines a light quite as brightly on the various terroirs and vineyards of Champagne.

The best comparisons to Liem’s Champagne are some of the great, in-depth works on the vineyards of Burgundy like Marie-Hélène Landrieu-Lussigny and Sylvain Pitiot’s The Climats and Lieux-dits of the Great Vineyards of Burgundy, Jasper Morris’ Inside Burgundy and Remington Norman’s Grand Cru: The Great Wines of Burgundy Through the Perspective of Its Finest Vineyards.

Liem’s book also comes with prints of Louis Larmat’s vineyard maps from the 1940s. While I’m a big advocate of buying used books, these maps are worth paying a little more to get a new edition. This way you are guaranteed getting the prints in good condition. I’m not kidding when I say that these maps are like a wine geek’s wet dream.

Bursting Bubbles: A Secret History of Champagne and the Rise of the Great Growers by Robert Walters (New available for $18.14)

I did a full review of Bursting Bubbles earlier this year and it remains one of the most thought-provoking books that I’ve read about wine.

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

If you think I get snarky about Dom Perignon, wait till you read Walters take on the myths surrounding him and the marketing of his namesake wine.

Walters believes that over the years that Champagne has lost its soul under the dominance of the big Champagne houses. While he claims that the intent of his book is not to be “an exercise in Grandes Marques bashing”, he definitely heaps a fair amount of scorn on the winemaking, viticulture and marketing practices that have elevated the Grandes Marques to their great successes.

Throughout the book he “debunks” various myths about Champagne (some of which I personally disagree with him on) as well as interviews many of influential figures of the Grower Champagne movement.

While there is value in Bursting Bubbles from a critical thinking perspective, it is in those interviews where this book becomes essential for wine students. There is no denying the importance of the Grower Champagne movement in not only changing the market but also changing the way people think about Champagne. Growers have been key drivers in getting people to think of Champagne as a wine and not just a party bottle.

Serious students of wine need to be familiar with people like Pascal Agrapart, Anselme Selosse, Francis Egly, Jérôme Prévost and Emmanuel Lassaigne. Walters not only brings you into their world but puts their work into context. While other Champagne books (like Christie’s, Peter Liem’s and David White’s) will often have profile blurbs on these producers, they don’t highlight why you need to pay attention to what these producers are doing like Bursting Bubbles does.

Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times by Don and Petie Kladstrup. (Used starting at $1.90)

In wine studies, it’s so easy to get caught up in the technical details of terroir, grape varieties and winemaking that you lose sight of a fundamental truth. Wine is made by people.

Of course, the land and the climate play a role but the only way that the grape makes its way to the glass is through the hands of men and women. Their efforts, their story, marks every bottle like fingerprints. To truly understand a wine–any wine–you need to understand the people behind it.

Photo scan from a postcard with unknown author. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under Anonymous-EU

During the height of World War I, when the vineyards and streets of Champagne were literal battlefields, the Champenois descended underground and lived in the caves that were used to aged Champagne.
This photo shows a makeshift school that was set up in the caves of the Champagne house Mumm.

While there are great history books about Champagne (one of which I’ll mention next), no one has yet brought to life the people of Champagne quite as well as the Kladstrups do in Champagne.

Set against the backdrops of the many wars that have scarred the region–particularly in the 19th & 20th century–the Kladstrups share the Champenois’ perseverance over these troubles. Even when things were at their bleakest, the people of Champagne kept soldiering on, producing the wine that shares their name and heritage.

If you wonder why wine folks have a tough time taking sparkling wines like Korbel, Cook’s and Andre’s (so called California “champagnes”) seriously, read this book. I guarantee that you will never use the word Champagne “semi-generically” again.

It’s not about snobbery or marketing. It’s about respect.

But First, Champagne: A Modern Guide to the World’s Favorite Wine by David White (Used starting at $6.00)

David White is known for founding the blog Terroirist. He gives a great interview with Levi Dalton on the I’ll Drink To That! podcast about his motivations for writing this book. While he acknowledges that there are lots of books about Champagne out on the market, he noticed that there wasn’t one that was deep on content but still accessible like a pocket guide.

While the producer profiles in the “pocket guide” section of the book overlaps with the Christie and Liem’s books (though, yes, much more accessible) where White’s book becomes essential is with his in-depth coverage on the history of the Champagne region.

A Tour of History
Photo from Département des Arts graphiques ; Sully II, Epi 5, Fonds des dessins et miniatures. References Joconde database: entry 50350213446. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-Art (PD-old-100)

A watershed moment for sparkling Champagne was in 1728 when Louis XV struck down the laws that prohibited shipping wine in bottles. Prior to this, all French wines had to be shipped in casks.
Soon after, as White’s book notes, the first dedicated Champagne houses were founded with Ruinart (1729) and Chanoine Frères (1730).

The first section of the book (Champagne Through The Ages) has six chapters covering the history of the Champagne region beginning with Roman times and then the Franks to Champagne’s heritage as a still red wine. It continues on to the step-by-step evolution of Champagne as a sparkling wine. These extensively detailed chapters highlights the truth that sparkling Champagne was never truly invented. It was crafted–by many hands sculpting it piece by piece, innovation by innovation.

There are certainly other books that touch on these history details like Hugh Johnson’s Vintage: The Story of Wine (no longer in print), Kolleen M. Guy’s When Champagne Became French, Tilar J. Mazzeo’s The Widow Clicquot as well as previous books mentioned here. But they all approach Champagne’s history from different piecemeal perspectives while White’s work is a focused and chronological narrative.

I also love in his introduction how White aptly summarizes why Champagne is worth studying and worth enjoying.

“From dinner with friends to a child’s laughter or a lover’s embrace, every day has moments worth the warmth of reflection—and worthy of a toast.

Life is worth celebrating. And that’s why Champagne matters.” — David White, But First, Champagne

It is indeed and, yes, it does.

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Getting Geeky with the 2000 Krug Clos du Mesnil

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

Krug Clos du Mesnil

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

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

The Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oxidative Style

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

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

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

The Production Team

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

Krug Champagne display box

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

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

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

The Vineyard

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes at Clos du Mesnil

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

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

The Wine

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

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

The raw honeycomb note of this Champagne is very intriguing.

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

The Verdict — Is it worth the money?

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

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

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

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

Nope.

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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