Tag Archives: Pinot blanc

Geek Notes — Insider’s Peek Into Champagne

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

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

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

Notes From The Wines of Champagne

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

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

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

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

Grand Cru and Growers
 Jean Fannière Grand Cru Champagne

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s kind of the point.

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

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

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

Sparkling Wine Making From the Wine & Spirit Education Trust

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

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

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

My Notes From Sparkling Wine Making

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Into The Nitty-Gritty

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

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

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

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

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Geek Notes 9/25/2018 — New Wine Books for October

Fall is here which means shorter days but longer nights to spend curled up next to a great wine book. Here is a look at some of the upcoming October releases that I’m excited to get my hands on.

Amber Revolution: How the World Learned to Love Orange Wine by Simon J. Woolf (Hardcover release October 2nd)

This Two Vintners “OG” Gewürztraminer made in an orange wine style with extended maceration blew me away with how complex and delicious it was.

For many wine lovers, “orange wine” is the biggest wine trend that they’ve heard of but haven’t had the chance to try yet.

It’s tempting to call this a fad and chalk it up to Millennials’ latest fancy. But this is a really old winemaking style that has been around for as long as wine has been made. At its most simplest, orange wine is basically just white wine that has spent time in contact with grape skins. This exposes it more to oxygen than the modern method of quickly pressing white grapes and processing them anaerobically.

While a couple 2017 releases like Marissa A. Ross’s Wine. All the Time, Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron’s Natural Wine and Alice Feiring’s The Dirty Guide to Wine touched a little on orange wine, to the best of my knowledge, Amber Revolution is the first book devoted exclusively to the topic.

Judging by the recent popularity of the category, Woolf’s book is quite timely. Here he covers the history and production methods behind orange wines, as well as profiles 180 producers in 20 countries.

At this year’s Louis Roederer international Wine Writers’ Awards, Simon Woolf took home the Domaine Ott International Feature Writer of the Year award for his work at Meininger Wine Business International, Decanter and blog The Morning Claret.

Update:

On Instagram Simon Woolf had this advice for folks wanting to get a copy of his book. “Btw although in the US the book is only available from October, in Europe it can also be ordered direct from my site. Also for US customers, best to order direct from the publisher.”

Kevin Zraly Windows on the World Complete Wine Course: Revised, Updated & Expanded Edition by Kevin Zraly (Hardcover release October 16th)
Photo by tomasz przechlewski. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The new edition of Windows on the World likely will also touch on orange wine and the renaissance in Georgian winemaking of using Kvevri (Qvevri) amphora jars buried in the ground to ferment and age wine.

From the very first edition in 1985, Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World books have been a benchmark standard in wine education.

In addition to his Windows on the World wine classes and books, Zraly has also authored the very useful wine texts The Ultimate Wine Companion: The Complete Guide to Understanding Wine by the World’s Foremost Wine Authorities and Red Wine: The Comprehensive Guide to the 50 Essential Varieties & Styles with Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen (authors of Wines of California that I mentioned in last month’s Geek Notes).

Frequently updated, the Windows on the World series has grown to include a pronunciation guide (Kindle only), a tasting notebook and food pairing companion.

The current 2018 edition has been expanded to 432 pages (up from 384 pages in the 2016 edition). It includes more detailed coverage of South America, Australia, China and New Zealand with new maps and infographics.

For geeks on a budget, there is one advantage of the frequent updates and releases. You can get used copies of previous editions of Windows on the World super cheap on Amazon. For instance, the 2012 edition is going for around $1.30 for the paperback version. While a tad outdated, at 352 pages it still covers the basics and the classic wine regions very well.

The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste by Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay (Hardcover release October 23rd)

This is probably the book that I’m most excited for because of the atlas’ focus on blind tasting. As the Amazon description notes:

“There are books that describe the geography of wine regions. And there are books that describe the way basic wines and grapes should taste. But there are no books that describe the intricacies of the way wines from various subregions, soils, and appellations should taste.”

Any wine student seeking higher level certifications through the Court of Master Sommeliers or the Wine Spirit & Education Trust should be intimately familiar with the wines on the Probable List of Examinable Red Grape Varieties, Examinable White Grape Varieties and the Certified Sommelier Examination Grape Varieties & Growing Regions.

All these wines will have distinctive profiles (typicity) with the examination board picking examples that demonstrate these distinctions well. Not only do you need to train yourself how to identify these wines, when you get to examinations like those of the Institute of Masters of Wine you will also have to explain why these distinct profiles exist (terroir, viticultural decisions, winemaking, etc).

Dearth of Blind Tasting Resources

There are not many resources out there tackling blind tasting and typicity from an examination point of view. Of course, there is  material from WSET and CMS that you get with classes but outside sources are hard to find.  Neel Burton’s The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting has been the closest I’ve found. But even that strays more into a “Windows on the World” type overview instead of getting into the nitty gritty details of teaching you to look for this while tasting a Chablis Grand Cru like Les Clos and this while tasting a Chablis Premier Cru like Montmains, etc.

I’ll be honest. At this point in my studies, all I can tell you is that they are both delicious.

Parr and Mackay’s book looks like it’s going to fill in that sorely needed niche–at least regarding terroir.

To understand the role of viticulture and winemaking decisions on the taste of wine, James Halliday and Hugh Johnson’s The Art and Science of Wine and Jamie Goode’s The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass are two of the best books I’ve found so far.

Vines and Vintages: A Taste of British Columbia’s Wine History by Luke Whittall (Paperback release October 30th, 2018)

I’m only about 3 to 6 hours away from the wine regions of the Okanagan and Vancouver Island. Yet, in all practicality, the wines of British Columbia might as well be from China. Here in the US, they are incredibly difficult to find. Even restaurants in Vancouver are far more likely to offer French, Australian and Californian labels instead of local BC wines.

While I haven’t been overly impressed with the Bordeaux varieties in BC, this 2016 Clos du Soleil Cab Franc/Cab Sauv rose from the Upper Bench of the South Similkameen Valley was quite tasty.

But every time I do eventually get my hands on wine from BC, I tend to enjoy them.  It’s clear that this is a growing industry. With the influence of climate change, it is only going to become more significant on the world’s wine stage. This is definitely an area worth exploring.

The few other books that I’ve came across dealing with BC wines have been a brief inclusion in Cole Danehower’s Essential Wines and Wineries of the Pacific Northwest and some of John Schreiner’s (a bit outdated) works The British Columbia Wine Companion (1997) and Chardonnay & Friends: Variety Wines of British Columbia (1999).

But with 370 pages, I can see Luke Whittall (already an established authority on BC wines with his blog and podcast at Wine Country BC) going into far more detail about the British Columbia wine scene and the remarkable growth it is has seen in the last 20 years.

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Geek Notes 7/30/18 — New Wine Books to Geek Out With in August

Photo is from DEM of the New Zealand from GLOBE (topography) and ETOPO2 (bathymetry) datasets, precessed with Arcgis9.1 by jide. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Elevations of New Zealand

A look at some of the some of new releases in the world of wine books.

The Wines of New Zealand by Master of Wine Rebecca Gibb (released July 30th, 2018)

While there has been a few other books written to cover the wines of New Zealand such as Michael Cooper and John McDermott’s Wine Atlas of New Zealand (2002) and Warren Moran’s New Zealand Wine: The Land, The Vines, The People (2017), as far as I can tell this 356 page book is the first in-depth and exclusive look into the wines of New Zealand that has been written by a Master of Wine.

While previous books were written by New Zealand insiders, I’m intrigued at the perspective that UK-based Gibb may add to the story–especially in light of the global worldview of wine that is required to attain MW certification.

This intrigues me because it seems like in many ways that the NZ wine industry has been suffocating under the weight of success for their Sauvignon blancs with the grape still representing a staggering 72% of New Zealand wine production (2016).

Now with producers in other regions of the world breaking down the science of thiols and their precursors as well as the role of methoxypyrazines to tweak their own approach to Sauvignon blanc, wine shelves are awashed in pink grapefruit and gooseberries.

Suddenly New Zealand’s “distinctive style” doesn’t seem so distinctive anymore.

Photo by B.muirhead. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

View towards the Southern Alps but it honestly wouldn’t be out of place in the Malbec country of Mendoza, Argentina.

Yet for a country that spans over 10 degrees of latitude from the Northland region of the North Island down to Dunedin south of the Central Otago district on the South Island (more than the latitude difference between Champagne, France and Naples, Italy), it feels like there has to be more to the New Zealand wine story that just their ubiquitous Sauvignon blanc.

I mean, come on, this is a land that was able to bring to life on screen the diverse terrains Tolkien’s imagination in the Lord of the Rings series. Certainly there has to be a treasure trove of unique terroir that can be married to different varieties in magical ways.

As a wine geek and consumer, I would love to learn more about some of the 50+ other grape varieties grown in New Zealand.

What about Albariño in Gisborne? Syrah from Hawke’s Bay? Pinot blanc from Central Otago? Petit Verdot from Waiheke Island?

I know those varieties probably won’t excite the patio pounders and cafe sippers who guzzle down Kim Crawford, Oyster Bay and Nobilo by the caseful but it is certainly an answer for the legions of drinkers who’ve grown fatigued of Sauvignon blanc as is the inevitable fate for every fashionable variety.

Perhaps Gibb’s book would not only answer that fatigue but maybe also give a reason to give New Zealand’s old standby of Sauvignon blanc a fresh look with new eyes?

How to Import Wine: An Insider’s Guide (2nd Edition) by Deborah M. Gray. (To be released August 13th, 2018)

Gray’s first edition of How to Import Wine from 2011 was an extremely valuable resource for me in studying for the business unit of the WSET diploma.

It laid out clearly a lot of the complexities behind finding clients, building brands as well as the licensing, regulations and expenses that go into importing wine and finding distribution for those wines. It’s a far less romantic reality than you would imagine after reading Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route.

And then there is the reality of a rapidly changing market–driven particularly by Millennials and our wanderlust tastes. The second edition of Gray’s book looks to tackle some of those changes along with new laws and regulation that have emerged since the previous edition.

In Vino Duplicitas: The Rise and Fall of a Wine Forger Extraordinaire (paperback) by Peter Hellman. (To be released August 21st, 2018)

Seems like folks love reading (and writing) about rich folks getting snookered on wine.

Similar to how Benjamin Wallace’s The Billionaire’s Vinegar chronicled Hardy Rodenstock’s forgeries and scandals, Hellman takes a look at the build up and fall out of Rudy Kurniawan’s nearly 10 year con of infiltrating the big spenders clubs of the wine world and then blending his own fake bottles of legendary wines to sell to his buddies.

Hellman’s book was originally released in hardcover and audio book back in July 2017 and is a great read for folks who like historical non-fiction along with a peak into the gaudy wine drinking lifestyles of people who pop Petrus and DRC like a Sunday brunch wine.

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

Why have mimosas when you can have La Tache? Assuming it’s real of course.

I also recommend checking out the 2016 documentary Sour Grapes which covers the Rudy Kurniawan from the perspective of those who knew Rudy as well as his victims and the people who brought him down.

That film also introduced me to the awesome work of Maureen Downey (aka ‘The Sherlock Holmes of Wine’) who was at the forefront in exposing Kurniawan. The day she releases a book on wine forgery, you better believe I will be snapping that sucker up on preorder.

The Wines of Eastern Europe by John Hudelson PhD. (To be released August 1st, 2018)

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

Seriously, Pošip is a fantastic white wine! Kind of like a less green and pungent New Zealand Sauvignon blanc.

Admittedly the wines of Bulgaria, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Georgia, Croatia and the like are a bit of a blind spot for me. Sure I’ve had Tokaji before (including a huge jackpot score with The Somm Game on my last trip to Vegas) and my mind was blown away on my trip to Croatia with how incredibly delicious their whites made from Pošip, Grk and Maraština were.

I’ve also had an oddball Bulgarian, Georgian and Romanian wine but outside of flashcard WSET knowledge about Bull’s Blood, Fetească Regală, Saperavi and the like I don’t really have much in-depth knowledge about the wines and culture of this part of the world. And I doubt that I’m alone in sharing this blind spot.

But exciting things are happening in the wine industries of Central and Eastern Europe with new winemakers taking fresh approaches to their bevy of unique indigenous varieties–to say nothing of the Natural Wine Movement that seems to have its spiritual home here.

With 386 pages written by John Hudelson, the author of Wine Faults: Causes, Effects, Cures (which was super valuable to me during my winemaking studies), I can see The Wines of Eastern Europe going a long way towards filling in that gaping blind spot.

Though giving Hudelson’s previous work on wine faults, I’ll be really curious to see how he approaches the topic of sulfite use and natural wines.

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60 Second Wine Review–WillaKenzie Pinot blanc

Continuing our Oregon Wine Month celebration, here are a few quick thoughts about the 2013 WillaKenzie Pinot blanc from the Yamhill-Carlton District.

The Geekery

WillaKenzie was founded in 1991 by Bernard and Ronni Lacroute with the winery named after the mustard color series of sedimentary soils prominent in the Yamhill-Carlton District, McMinville and Ribbon Ridge AVAs.

With a slogan “Dirt Matters”, author Kenneth Friedenreich notes in Oregon Wine Stories that along with the Campbells of Elk Cove, Kramer Vineyards and the Bergs of Roots Wine Co., WillaKenzie helped raised the profile of the Yamhill-Carlton District as a destination in Oregon wine country.

In 2016, the Lacroutes sold the winery to Jackson Family Estates where it joined a portfolio of brands that now includes Copain, Carmel Road, Cardinale, Freemark Abbey, La Jota, Brewer-Clifton, Byron, Cambria, Kendall-Jackson, La Crema, Matanzas Creek, Gran Moraine, Zena Crown, Penner-Ash among many others.

With the changing ownership came a change in winemakers with Erik Kramer (previously of Domaine Serene) taking over from Thibaud Mandet who was mentored by WillaKenzie’s longtime winemaker Laurent Montalieu before he left the winery in 2003 to focus on his Solena, Domaine Loubejac and Kudos labels.

The 2013 Pinot blanc is sourced from the winery’s estate vines that were planted in 1992-93 and are sustainably farmed.

The Wine

Medium-minus intensity nose with green apples and faint Meyer lemons.

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

Rich citrus notes like Meyer lemons characterize this wine.


On the palate the lemon notes become more pronounce and have a slight custardy texture with the medium-plus body weight. Medium acidity gives some balance but could probably use more. There are no overt vanilla oak notes but some subtle baking spice (clove, allspice) notes appear on the moderate finish that suggest maybe a touch was involved.

The Verdict

At around $23-28, this is not a great value but it is a decent white wine for fans who crave something with body but different than a Chardonnay.

At 4+ years of age, it is holding up fairly well but is clearly on its last legs so I would recommend drinking it soon.

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Playing the Somm Game in Vegas

“Unicorns aren’t real, but the house advantage is.”

I just got back from a weekend in Las Vegas where I lost far more than I care to admit at the casinos.

Growing up in St. Louis with church bingo and riverboat casinos, I will always have soft-spot for the gambler’s heart.

But man does it suck losing.

However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve found one game that I love playing in Vegas where I’m a sure bet to come out a big winner–the Somm Game.

How to Play

It’s a simple game. You go to a nice restaurant with a thick, Bible-size wine list.

Give the sommelier your budget, what food you are ordering, let them know you are open to anything and then let them take it from there.

That’s it. That’s the game and the payoff is almost always better than anything you’ll find at the tables or slots.

Why the Somm Game works

First off, your objective is to have a great dining experience. You know who else shares that same objective? The sommelier. Their entire job is to give you a memorable experience so the house odds are already in your favor.

Just like I’m sure you perform best at your job when your clients let you do your thing, so too do sommeliers really get a chance to shine when you simply trust them to do what they are trained to do—which is far more than only opening bottles and pouring them into decanters.

And *spoiler alert* sometimes they have bottles like this just “lying around”.


Sommeliers are professionals and many have spent years honing their craft, studying, tasting and traveling the world of wine. With certification programs from the Court of Master Sommeliers, Wine & Spirits Education Trust, International Sommelier Guild and the like, the quality of wine education in the industry has never been higher. Why let that advantage go to waste?

And it is an advantage–one that even the most savvy and experienced wine drinkers don’t readily have.

Look I know my fair share about wine. I can open up a wine list and recognize most every name and region on it. I can hold my own rattling off producers, soil types, grapes varieties and facts. But I’ll tell you what I don’t necessarily know—how everything on the list is drinking now and what exactly will pair best with the particular flavors of the chef’s cuisine.

No matter how much a person knows about wine, the odds are that the sommelier team knows their own list and their own food at least a little bit better than you do. Especially at a restaurant with a good wine program that involves frequent tastings and pairing exercises, they’re going to have a leg up on you with what is drinking great right now and is pairing well.

“But Amber, I don’t want to get ripped off by restaurant mark ups!”

Okay, I know restaurant mark ups can be painful to swallow. Believe me, it’s even tougher when you’ve been in the business and know intimately what the typical wholesale and retail prices are of the wines you frequently see on wine lists.

But here’s the beauty of playing the Somm Game and trusting the sommelier to make the wine picks—most likely you’re going to avoid getting the crazy mark up wines and instead get the gems that the sommeliers themselves would pick for their own dinners.

By trusting the sommeliers you are far less likely to get “ripped off” by markups than you would be ordering on your own. They don’t need to sell you the crazy high mark up wines because your fellow diners are already buying those wines and paying the “Ego Tax” on them.

The “Ego Tax”

Restaurants are businesses and all businesses aim to make a profit. With margins on food being so tight, it naturally falls on the beverage side of the business to earn healthy returns.

In the wine industry, there are certain well known brands that restaurants know will sell off their wine list without any effort. These are your Jordan, Caymus, Rombauer, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, Opus One and Silver Oak type wines of the world.

There is no need for effort because wine consumers will order these wines on their own as frequently these are the only names on the list they recognize. Often their ego (either hubris or an irrational fear of looking helpless) keeps them from seeking the sommelier’s assistance so they retreat to the comfort of a known quantity.

But these “known quantities” are often the highest marked up wines on the entire list!

That hesitance to relinquish control and trust the sommelier to guide you out of the realm of the “the same ole, same ole” is not limited to just “regular wine drinkers”. It hits folks who “know wine” and have been around the industry. I mean come on! We don’t need help. We know how to order wine and what’s good!

General rule of thumb–if an average wine drinker would recognize the name on a wine list then you are probably going to pay an “ego tax” ordering it.

And that is why restaurants make bank off of the “Ego Tax”.

Which is fine, I suppose, if you are living off an expense account and paying with someone else’s dime. But most of us in the real world aren’t expense account dandies so it’s pointless to be paying the “Ego Tax” when all we’ve got to do is trust the somm and have some fun.

The Somm Game in Action

When I play the Somm Game, I start by introducing myself as a wine geek and telling the sommelier that all I want to do this evening is “geek out” a bit. Sometimes in the conversation that follows I will mention my wine industry background but that is rarely brought up. My approach is to present myself as just a geek that trusts and respects the sommelier’s judgement and expertise.

I give them a budget and tell them that I’m open to anything–glass pours, half-bottles, full-bottles. I recommend going a little higher in your budget than you would usually give yourself for ordering a single bottle because the more flexibility you give the somms, the more fun you can have. Trust me, it will pay off dividends.

I share with them what food I’m ordering–again emphasizing my openness in going with whatever the sommelier thinks will work best whether it be glass pours for each course or half/full-bottles, etc.

Then I sit back and have fun.

This weekend I had the opportunity to play the Somm Game at two restaurants–Lago by Julian Serrano at the Bellagio and at Aureole by Charlie Palmer at Mandalay Bay. Both restaurants have tremendous wine programs overseen by Master Sommelier Jason L. Smith, Executive Director of Wine for MGM Resorts International, and Mandalay Bay Director of Wine Harley Carbery.

When playing the Somm Game, it helps to increase your odds by playing with a stack deck.

Lago

At Lago, we were served by head sommelier Jeffrey Bencus, an Advance Sommelier who is on the cusp of achieving his MS. Talking with him, we found out that he has separately passed his theory and tasting exams for the Master Sommelier certification–just not within the same testing cycle.

On my own, when out for a nice dinner I usually aim for a bottle in the $250-300 range so I gave Jeffrey a budget of $350 and laid out the perimeters above. I told him we were geeks and opened to pretty much anything.

The style of cuisine at Lago is small plates so we started off with short rib cannelloni and red wine risotto. These were red wine heavy dishes but we were delighted when he brought out a half bottle of 2015 Jean-Philippe Fichet Meursault.

Granted, coming from the tremendous 2015 vintage this wine was already playing with a full house.

With plots in the enviable “second crus” of Les Chaumes de Narvaux (upslope from the Premier cru vineyards of Les Bouchères and Les Gouttes d’Or) and Le Limozin (flanked by 1er crus Les Genevrières and Les Charmes) as well as 65 to 75+ year old vine plantings in Les Clous and Les Criots, this village-level Meursault was delivering premier cru quality pleasure.

Textbook Meursault with subtle butteriness, hazelnuts and that liquid-rocks minerality that makes this place so special for Chardonnay. I don’t remember what the restaurant price was, but the Wine Searcher Average for the 2015 was $65. Well worth finding.

The following course was Italian sausage skewers with red pepper sauce and a filet with a Gorgonzola demi-glaze. Originally Jeffrey was thinking a classic 2012 Brunnello di Montalcino but decided to geek it up more for us with a 2012 Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi from the legendary Campanian producer. I was quite familiar with Mastroberardino and their flagship Taurasi but my initial instinct was that a 2012 would be far too young.

But, again, here is where a somm’s expertise and experience with their own wine list pays off because with nothing more than a splash decant the Radici was absolutely singing with the savory floral and spicy undertones of Aglianico complimenting not only my steak but also my wife’s Italian sausage with its sweet roasted red bell pepper sauce.

Black olives and black fruit with a long savory finish. A masterful wine from Mastroberardino that was drinking surprisingly well for a young Taurasi.


The Wine Searcher Average for this wine is listed at $47 but that is skewed a little by some discount Hong Kong retailers. In the US, it is far more common to find it retailing for $55-60.

For dessert we had a creme brulee and citrus cannoli and boy did we hit the jackpot with the Somm Game!

My wife and I were flabbergasted when Jeffrey brought out a tiny 187ml split of 1993 Château Pajzos Tokaji Esszencia.

I don’t think this wine was even on the wine list!

While I’ve had Tokaji several times, this was my first experience trying an Esszencia because of how rare (and expensive) it is. Made from the free-run juice of dried botrytized grapes, residual sugars can go as high as 85% and take over 6 years to ferment because of how sweet and concentrated it is. Tokaji Esszencia is truly one of the wonders of the wine world.

This wine was the #3 ranked wine on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list in 1998 and was described as “a perfect wine” with 100 pts from Robert Parker.

And it was just….wow! I think I finally found a wine that broke my mental 94 point barrier. It’s been over four days since I had this wine and I can still taste the amazing concentration of liquid figs, honey, cognac and lingering spice.

Folks….this is a WHITE wine!


Incredibly difficult to find retail due to its limited supply (only 165 cases made), the Wine Searcher Average for a 500ml of the 1993 Pajzos Esszencia is $698.

A stunning treat and life-long memory.

All together, the three wines were well around our $350 budget. As we were finishing up dinner while savoring that amazing Esszencia, I noticed the table next to us had ordered a bottle of 2006 Opus One which was $995 on the Lago’s restaurant list.

While I’m sure they enjoyed that bottle of Opus fine enough, I can’t help but think that we came out WAY ahead in our wine and food pairing experience by paying around a third of what they did.

Heck, all three of the wines we had which included one 375ml half bottle, one 750ml bottle and one 187ml split was less at restaurant mark-up than what one single bottle of 2006 Opus One averages at retail price.

That folks….is winning big with the Somm Game.

Aureole

The next night we visited Aureole at Mandalay Bay where we rolled the dice for the Somm Game with Kyran O’Dwyer, an Advance Sommelier since 2006.

While Kyran didn’t have an extra 187ml bottle of an uber-rare wine lying around, he had his own ace up his sleeve and delivered a remarkable and personalized experience that far exceeded our expectations.

We didn’t finish this bottle till just before dessert and it paired exquisitely with every dish we had.

Giving him the same $350 budget, the first roll came up sevens when he brought out a perfectly geeky Champagne–the Drappier Quattuor Blanc de Blancs featuring some of the rarest grapes in Champagne.

A blend of 25% Arbane, 25% Petit Meslier, 25% Blanc Vrai (Pinot blanc) and 25% Chardonnay to round it out, the wine was aged 3 years on the lees before being bottled with a dosage of 4 g/l. The Wine Searcher Average for it is $61 but most retailers in the US have it closer to the $120 release price noted by Wine Spectator. However it is incredibly difficult to find with most retailers (like K & L) getting less than a couple cases.

But oh is it worth the hunt! This is a “unicorn Champagne” like the ones I’ve been on the prowl for since I finished reading Robert Walters’ Bursting Bubbles. High intensity aromatics that continually evolved in the glass with a mix of citrus lemon custard and orange blossoms with some creamy creme brulee action. Exceptionally well balanced between the creamy mousse, racy citrus notes and dry dosage, the long finish brought out intriguing salty mineral notes that lasted for several minutes after you swallowed.

For appetizers my wife got a black garlic Cesar salad while I had the foie gras du jour–which was seared foie gras with a balsamic berry reduction paired with a French toast concoction that had the chef’s homemade nutella filling. While we enjoyed the Champagne, he gave us each an additional 2-3 oz “taster pour” of the 2014 Braida Brachetto d’Acqui to go with the foie gras.

A seriously good sweet wine worth geeking out over.

The wine was lively and fresh with ample acidity to balance the sweetness. The wine tasted like you were eating ripe strawberries picked straight from the bush. In a market flooded with Moscatos, Roscatos and Stella Rosa, sweet wines often get a bad rap as overly simple but tasting a wine like the Giacomo Bologna Braida Brachetto d’Acqui is a great reminder about how joyful and delicious “simple sweet wines” can be. At a retail average of $18 a bottle, it is also a great deal for folks wanting to trade out of the same ole, same ole for something new to try.

For dinner I had braised short rib ravioli with a smoked tomato cream sauce while my wife had one of the most delicious vegetarian lasagnas that we had ever tried. It must have had at least 20 layers of fresh pasta, butternut squash, sage, spinach and mascarpone. My ravioli was great but her lasagna was outstanding.

Of course, these dishes were quite different and not necessarily the easiest to pair with the same wine. Truthfully, on my own, I probably would have “wimped out” and took the easy route of ordering a village-level Burgundy with the thinking of acidity for my tomato cream sauce while some earthiness could play well with the lasagna without being too big or tannic. Not a perfect pairing but a serviceable one.

But Advance Sommeliers do not settle for serviceable.

One of the tell-tale signs of a good restaurant wine program is when the wine list has gems like this Portuguese Douro on it. Few people are savvy enough to recognize or order them but the sommeliers know what’s up.

Instead, Kyran surprised me with a 2012 Prats & Symington Post Scriptum de Chryseia from the Douro. I was already very familiar with the Symington family’s stable of Port houses like Cockburn, Dow, Graham, Warre and Quinta do Vesúvio but wasn’t aware of this particular Douro red wine label.

A blend of 53% Touriga Franca, 45% Touriga Nacional and 2% other Portuguese varieties, the wine was remarkably “St. Emilion-like” with a beautiful mix of blue flowers, dark fruit and savory baking spice notes on the nose. Far from being “too big” or “too tannic” for the vegetable lasagna, the wine was beautifully balance with juicy medium-plus acidity and velvety medium-plus tannins.

If this was a blind tasting and I pegged it as a St. Emilion, I would have been expecting it to be in the $45-55 range retail for a bottle. But here is where the savvy of a good sommelier comes into play because this absolute gem of a wine from a very underappreciated region is a total steal at around $26 a bottle retail.

The wine list price for this bottle was $67 which, compared to the usual 3x retail mark up common in the industry, was a great deal in its own right. Frankly, you would be hard-pressed to find a better bottle than this on most restaurant’s wine lists for less than $80.

We would have been more than happy with only this bottle for both our main courses but Kyran also brought my wife out a glass pour of the 2015 Domaine Laroche Vielle Voye Chablis to compliment her vegetarian lasagna. Sourced from 70+ year old vines, this village-level Chablis way over delivered and is another great value at $36 a bottle (and probably a $20-25 glass pour, at least).

The wine….they just kept coming!

Then for dessert my wife went with a blood orange creamsicle parfait while I ordered a maple brown butter creme brulee (my favorite dessert if you haven’t guess yet). Once again Kyran decided to individualize the pairing for us with my wife getting a glass of the 2008 Jackson Triggs Vidal Ice Wine from Niagara that was chock-full of orange blossoms and apricot notes while I got a 2011 Kracher Beerenauslese from Burgenland that had amazing lightness in the mouthfeel despite its rich concentration.

And coming…..
Like a hot slot machine.


With Wine Searcher averages of $93 and $61 respectively, my wife and I rarely buy full bottles of dessert wines because we never finish them. For us, it’s worth paying a little bit of a premium to enjoy them by the glass pour at a restaurant with a nice dessert. Yet, I rarely ever feel like I am paying a premium compared to the amount of pleasure I’m getting with the pairing.

With an end total of 2 bottles, 3 glasses and two taster pours over the course of a fabulous dinner with a personalize touch made this another jackpot win for the Somm Game. There is truly no way that I could have spent my money better that evening than just letting Kyran run the table with his fantastic pairings.

That is the beauty of the Somm Game.

Yes, it’s still gambling

And the house is going to get its share.

Of course, I could have likely bought (assuming I could even find them) bottles of the wines I had at each dinner for less than $350 on the retail market but that’s the same truth when comparing the cost of the food ingredients if you cooked the meal at home versus what you paid at a restaurant for a dish.

No one should approach the Somm Game or buying wine at restaurants with the perspective of beating retail prices. It’s never going to happen. These restaurants are businesses with overhead and staff that deserve to be paid living wages and benefits.

I’m not advocating the Somm Game as a way of “beating the house” though I do wholeheartedly endorse it as a way of getting the most out your money and having a kick-ass experience.

There is really not a dollar amount that you can put on your own personal pleasure or the joy of trying something new. You “come out ahead” when you end up getting more than you expected with a tremendous evening of great wine, great food and great memories that happened just because you let the professionals do the very thing that they are really good at doing.

No, there is not guaranteed 100% success each time you play. Sometimes you may be at a restaurant that doesn’t have a serious wine program with trained sommeliers. Sure you can still roll the dice but, as with all forms of gambling, there is always a chance you will crap out.

I recommend checking out the wine list and asking questions of the staff to get a feel if this is the type of place that is worth playing the Somm Game at.

But in Las Vegas, with its high density of outstanding restaurants and sommeliers, I’ve found no surer bet.

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Getting Geeky with Henri Gouges La Perrière White Pinot

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2014 Domaine Henri Gouges Nuits-St.-Georges 1er Cru La Perrière–a white wine made from a unique mutation of Pinot noir.

The Background

Remington Norman and Charles Taylor notes in The Great Domaines of Burgundy that Henri Gouges started his domain in the early 1920s with the purchase of around 22 acres in Nuits-St.-Georges. During the economic slump of the 1920s and 1930s, Gouges continued to take advantage of depressed vineyard prices. He was able to greatly expand the domaine choice parcels from several esteemed premier crus.

In the early 1930s, when concerns about rampant fraud and mislabeling was taking a toll on Burgundy prices, Gouges joined the Marquis d’Angerville and Armand Rousseau to rebel against the négociant houses by estate bottling all his domain wines.

Clive Coates described Henri Gouges, in The Wines of Burgundy, as the “Doyen of Nuits-St.-Georges” whose lasting influence in the commune has been far reaching. He was elected mayor several times.  In the 1930s when the Institut National d’Appellation d’Origine (INAO) was establishing the classification of Burgundy’s vineyard, Gouges represented the interests of Nuits-St.-Georges on the regulatory committee.

It is believed that because Gouges was a major owner of the famed Les St-Georges vineyard, and would have benefited greatly if that vineyard was classified as a Grand Cru, he wanted to avoid any potential conflicts of interest by advocating against any Nuits-St.-Georges vineyard being singled out as a Grand Cru. Instead, the committee awarded the commune 41 premier crus.  After Beaune’s 42 premier crus, this was the highest concentration of premier crus in the Côte d’Or .

Domaine Style
Photo by Leroy remy. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The village of Nuits-Saint-Georges in winter.

The domaine has long been a proponent of “traditional” and “natural viticulture” techniques–eschewing the use of chemicals when possible. In the vineyard, they prefer massale selection of vine cuttings instead of clonal propagation. Gouges’ grandson, Pierre, pioneered the use of ryegrass cover crop in the commune to curb erosion and encourage competition for the vine roots to find resources. Since 2008, all the domain’s vineyards have been farmed organically.

The Grape

The story goes that Henri Gouges was inspecting his Pinot noir vines in Nuits-St.-Georges 1er Cru La Perrière in late summer in the 1940s when he came across a vine that had all white clusters post-veraison. Intrigued, he cut off a branch of the vine and propagated to see if the new “Pinot noir” vine would also produce white clusters. It did so Gouges and his descendants continued to propagate the variety now known as “Pinot Gouges” in not only La Perrière but also in the premier cru vineyard (and Gouges monopole) of Clos de Porrets-Saint-Georges.

Is it a “White” Pinot noir or Pinot blanc?
Photo collage created by self as User:agne27 from photos released under creative commons licenses. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Pinot noir, Pinot gris and Pinot blanc are genetically the same grape.

An interesting question and one that I couldn’t find a definitive answer for.

Throughout history, Pinot vines have been observed having clusters with different colored berries on them. Sometimes even different colors on the same berry!

The Pinot grape is notorious for its genetic instability with Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes noting that there are more than a 1000 registered clones. That’s just the number of clones we know of. However, ampelographers believe that the mutation rate for Pinot is actually on par with other varieties and instead attribute the vast number of known mutations and genetic variations to the grape’s longevity and 2000+ year history.

Even with the many mutations, genetically all the various Pinot varieties (noir, blanc, gris, Meunier, Teinturier, etc) are the same–which to some degree makes the argument of what “Pinot Gouges” is moot.

But the concept of “White Pinot noir” does exist with producers pressing the red Pinot noir grapes quickly to produce a white wine. Used in Champagne for centuries, this method is a popular way to make white sparkling wines from red Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. When made as still wine, these White Pinot noirs often have a fuller-bodied, weighty fruit with just a tinge of color—traits that bore out in my tasting of the Gouges La Perrière.

Pinot blanc wines tend to be more moderate weight with medium to medium-minus acidity with brilliant clarity and no color–especially when young. While it can often be confused for Chardonnay (like the Gouges wine in my notes below), my experiences with true varietal Pinot blanc vines are just too different from tasting this Pinot Gouges which leads me to considering this a “White Pinot”.

The Vineyard

Photo derived from map provided for public use by Bourgone Wines.org

The Les Perrières vineyard located south of the village of Nuits-Saint-Georges.

La Perrière is a climat within the Premier Cru vineyard of Les Perrières located south of the village of Nuits-St.-Georges on the slope above the 1er Cru of Les Poirets (Les Porrets). The vineyard used to be a quarry with the name “Perrière” referencing the French term for quarry-workers. The soil is accordingly stony and pebbly.

Several producers have bottlings from this vineyard (all of them red) including Meo-Camuzet (Wine Searcher Ave $148), Louis Jadot (Wine Searcher Ave $134) and Domaine Robert Chevillon (Wine Searcher Ave $95)

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. In a blind tasting, I would be thinking Chardonnay with the tree fruits of apples and pears but there is a lot of spice here–not oak spice but rather exotic spices. I can’t quite pinpoint them but it smells like you walked into an Indian restaurant. There is also a white floral element that has me thinking of apple blossoms.

Photo by Joe mon bkk. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Lots of exotic spices and layers in this White Burgundy.

On the palate, there is a lot of weight and texture–things that would indicate new oak except for the complete absence of oak flavors. I also get some roasted hazelnuts which would make me think of an older Burg (like a 5 to 7 year old Meursault) rather than something that is only a little over 3 years old. Medium-plus acidity balances the weight of the fruit well but could be a tad higher. Moderate length finishes ends on the pear and spice notes.

The Verdict

Priced in line with upper-tier Premier Cru white Burgundies, the wine holds it own at the $90-110 range. It’s hard not to compare it to a well-made Meursault Premier Cru like Les Charmes and Les Perrières though I think what ultimately separates this Nuits-St.-Georges White Pinot from those crème de la crème Chardonnays is precision and longevity.

While there are lots of layers in this wine, they don’t have the crystal clarity and precision of flavors that truly highlight great white Burgs. You could say that develops with bottle age but this relatively young wine already tastes far older than what you would expect with its age. While it is giving considerable pleasure now, I can’t see it getting anywhere near the levels of a great Meursault wine from the same vintage 3 years down the road, much less 5 or 15.

Still, this is fascinating and exceedingly character driven wine that is worth seeking out just to experience. From a commune that is 97% red wine (with the entire Côte de Nuits being 95% red), it is truly a unicorn with only around 2000-2500 bottles produced each year.

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60 Second Wine Review– Aniello Blanco de Pinot noir

A few quick thoughts on the 2015 Aniello Blanco de Pinot noir from Patagonia, Argentina.

The Geekery

Bodega Aniello was founded in 2010 by winemaker Santiago Bernasconi and a group of partners. Prior to founding Aniello, Bernasconi worked at Bodega NQN in Neuquen, Patagonia.

The estate owns two vineyards, both in the Mainque district in the upper Río Negro region of Patagonia with the main estate planted in 1998 to Pinot noir, Merlot and Malbec. Mike Desimone and Jeff Jenssen note in Wines of the Southern Hemisphere that the climate of this area is much cooler than Mendoza with the soils here a mix of clay and sandy loam. The second vineyard includes blocks of Trousseau that were planted in 1932 and own-rooted Malbec planted in 1947. All the vineyards are sustainably farmed.

The Blanco de Pinot noir is produced by gently pressing and minimizing skin contact of the red Pinot noir grape (similar to what is done in Champagne). The wine is fermented in concrete eggs with a mix of native and inoculated yeast. Around 10% of the wine is aged for 5 months in French oak barrels.

The Wine

Medium-minus intensity on the nose. Very muted. A little tree fruit like peach and apple.

Photo by National Fruit Collection, Brogdale. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under Open Government Licence v2.0.

Little bit of earthy apple notes in this wine.

On the palate, the tree fruits comes through but have an earthier element to it–like bruised apple that suggest a little bit of oxidation. Medium-plus acidity gives some life. The wine has a bit of weight to the mouthfeel and a lot of phenolic texture which is surprising giving the little skin contact it had. There is a subtle spice element that is not very defined that comes out on the short finish.

The Verdict

Despite being a core component of many Champagnes, white Pinot noirs are fairly rare and interesting to try. In a blind tasting I can see myself thinking this is maybe a Pinot blanc or a less aromatic and spicy Grüner Veltliner.

At around $17-20, you are paying more for the novelty than the quality.

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60 Second Wine Review — Pierre Gerbais L’Originale

Some quick thoughts on the Pierre Gerbais L’Originale Extra Brut Champagne that was highlighted in my review of Robert Walters’ Bursting Bubbles.

The Geekery

In Peter Leim’s Champagne, he notes that Aurélien Gerbais is an 8th generation grower in the Côte des Bar and the 4th generation to make wine in this region of the Aube.

The estate of Pierre Gerbais is certainly unique in Champagne. Pinot blanc accounts for nearly a quarter of the domaine’s 43 acres of vines. This includes some old vine plantings in the historic “Les Proies” vineyard that date back to 1904.

In the 20th century, many Champagne estates uprooted their Pinot blanc in favor of the more fashionable Chardonnay and Pinot noir. However, the Gerbais’ value Pinot blanc ability to handle humidity and frost which can often hit their estate in Celles-sur-Ource.

After Aurélien’s grandmother became sick from pesticide residue on the vines after working in the vineyard, the estate converted to organic viticulture in the 1990s.

The L’Originale is 100% Pinot blanc sourced from old vine plantings. It spends 36 months aging on the lees prior to being disgorged with a dosage of 3 g/l. Around 3000 bottles are made every year.

The Wine

Photo by Dirk Ingo Franke. Posted on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.

The subtle smokiness of the apple adds savory complexity to this Champagne

High intensity nose.  The huge apple notes are a mix of both fresh cut apples and grilled apple slices–like something topping a wood-fired white pizza. Some spiced pear as well.

On the palate the apple notes carry through. The notes are amplified with a sense creaminess and weight in the mouthfeel. The subtle smokiness from the nose exhibited by the grilled slices linger and compliments the toasty-leesy flavors of the Champagne. The finish is long with a salty minerality.

The Verdict

There is a tremendous amount of complexity and character in this Champagne. It is well worth its $70-80 price tag and outshines many wines in the $100+ range.

Being a small production grower, this Pierre Gerbais L’Originale won’t be easy to find but if you can get your hands on it, buy multiple bottles.

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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.

Photo by Fab5669. Released on Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-3.0

Vineyards in the Grand Cru village of Mailly.


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

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

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

Some Things I Learned

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

By 808 Mālama pono - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, on Wikimedia Commons

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


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

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

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

Wines I Want to Try Because of This Book

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

New Reading Recommendations I Got From This Book

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Getting Geeky with Adelsheim Auxerrois

Going to need more than 60 seconds to geek out with the 2011 Adelsheim Auxerrois.

The Background

Adelsheim Vineyards started in 1971 when David & Ginny Adelsheim purchased land in what is now the Chehalem Mountains AVA. The next year they established their Quarter Mile Lane vineyard, becoming the first to plant in this northern part of the Willamette Valley.

In 1994, Jack and Lynn Loacker joined the Adelsheims as co-owners and began planting their Ribbon Springs Vineyards in the Ribbon Ridge sub-AVA of the Chehalem Mountains. Among the varieties planted in this vineyard are Pinot noir, Pinot gris and a little over 2 acres of the obscure French variety Auxerrois.

Ribbon Springs Vineyard highlighted.
Map courtesy of the Chehalem Mountains Winegrowers

On all the estate vineyards, Adelsheim practices sustainable viticulture and are certified Salmon Safe and LIVE.

It was announced in December 2017 that Adelsheim’s winemaker David Paige was stepping down with associate winemaker Gina Hennen being promoted to replace him. This makes Hennen only the third head winemaker in Adelsheim’s 40+ year history with Paige following founder David Adelsheim in the position in 2001. She joins vineyard manager Kelli Gregory as one of the few all female winemaker/vineyard manager combos at a major winery.

The Grape

By Rosenzweig - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0

Auxerrois grapes in Weinsberg


According to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes , Auxerrois is the second most widely planted white grape variety in Alsace after Riesling.

While it is not permitted in Alsatian Grand Cru or the dessert wine styles of Vendange Tardive or Sélection de Grains Nobles, it is often used in the production of Crémant d’Alsace and Edelzwicker as well as wines labeled as Klevener and Pinot blanc. In fact, it is a quirk of Alsatian wine laws that a wine can be 100% Auxerrois but labeled as Pinot blanc.

The close association with Auxerrois and Pinot blanc is due to the similarities in wine styles produce by both. Typically low in acid but with a rich mouthfeel that has weight and texture. DNA analysis has shown that Auxerrois is a progeny of Pinot and Gouais blanc–making it a sibling of Chardonnay, Aligote, Melon de Bourgogne and Gamay. It is also a half-sibling of Blaufränkisch and Colombard.

Outside of Alsace, Auxerrois can be found in the French Moselle, Côtes de Toul, Luxembourg, England and the Netherlands. The grape can also be found in Germany in the Baden, Nahe, Palatinate and Rheinhessen.

Outside of Europe, Canada has a few plantings of Auxerrois in Ontario as well as the Okanagan Valley and Vancouver Island wine producing regions of British Columbia. The grape was unexpectedly discovered in South Africa in the 1980s when vines that were thought to be Chardonnay turned out to actually be Auxerrois.

This “Chardonnay Scandal” in South African wine history began in the 1970s when growers responding to the rush to plant more Chardonnay tried to get around quarantines and bureaucratic paperwork by turning to smugglers for their vine materials. In addition to getting Auxerrois vines instead of Chardonnay, the smugglers also inadvertently brought in Chenel (a crossing of Chenin blanc and Ugni blanc).

In the United States, beyond the Willamette Valley, there are small plantings of Auxerrois in the Lake Erie region of Ohio and the Leelanau Peninsula AVA of Michigan which Appellation America proclaims is the “best home” for the grape. Here the Bel Lago Vineyards & Winery stakes claim to producing the first American Auxerrois in 1998 with Adelsheim’s first bottling coming in 2004.

Auxerrois photo from Bauer Karl released on Wikimedia Commons under   CC-BY-3.0-AT; Chardonnay photo  from Viala und Vermorel 1901-1910 (Ampélographie. Traité général de viticulture) released under the Public Domain; Pinot blanc photo By Bauer Karl - Own work, CC BY 3.0

Auxerrois grapes comparison to Chardonnay and Pinot blanc


The Wine

The 2011 Adelsheim Auxerrois has medium plus intensity on the nose which is very surprising for a 6 year old white wine. The aromas are a mix of spiced tree fruit (mostly pear) with some floral herbal elements like bay laurel and tarragon.

By Zeynel Cebeci - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

This wine has the floral fragrance of a fresh herb like bay laurel.


The palate has lively medium plus acidity which is, again, surprising for its age and with Auxerrois typically being considered a “low acid” variety.

This fresh acidity brings out citrus notes but for the most part the spiced pear and herbal notes carry through. The medium body has the texture of an unoaked Pinot blanc and Chardonnay which would give me some trouble in a blind tasting. Ultimately it is the floral herbal notes that distinguishes this as a different grape variety. The wine’s age finally catches up to it with the finish that is very short and quickly fades.

Still this is an impressive wine that has held up much better than how many domestic white wines (outside of Riesling) usually do. For the most part I try to open up my domestic whites within 3 years of vintage date and start getting really nervous when they get close to 5 years. But this Adelsheim Auxerrois still has a good story to tell and I would be quite interested in trying a newer release.

At around $20-25, it does command a premium for an obscure white variety but I think that premium is worth it for a very character driven wine that clearly has aging potential.

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