Recently I moderated a virtual blind tasting sponsored by the California company, Lifetime Vintage. Being in Europe, I wasn’t able to sample the wines myself, so I got to play detective. I listened to Kendeigh Worden of The Grape Grind, Noelle Harman of Outwines, Jeff Burrows of FoodWineClick, Lauren Walsh of The Swirling Dervish and Dylan Robbins, CEO of Lifetime Vintage, describe on Zoom–from across four different states and an ocean–the wines they were tasting.
We broke it out into two sessions, which Lifetime Vintage recorded–the first covering two whites and the second on two reds. So you can watch the fun yourself, but I’ll give you a little spoiler–I sucked!
Well, kinda. I got 1 out of the 4 right and was in the ballpark for a few others. But I still learned a lot with the most significant takeaway being that if you’re a wine student in the US, you absolutely need to check out Lifetime Vintage’s Blind Tasting program.
Now I’ll note that even though Lifetime Vintage sponsored the Zoom tasting by hosting it and sending Kendeigh, Noelle, Jeff and Lauren their kits, this is a wholly full-throated and unbridled endorsement. The only compensation that I’ve received was a huge amount of FOMO and jealousy over not being able to use this service myself.
I’m not kidding.
If I were still in the US, I would be all over this because it is, by far, one of the best study tools for blind tasting that I’ve come across.
At the beginning of the first video on white wines, Dylan explained the concept behind the kits. But I’ll give you a little summary here and why I find this so awesome.
1.) They have a network of retailers in 44 states so they can coordinate sending the same wines to study groups across the country.
Sadly, the archaic wine laws of Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Alabama and Utah still have those states on the sideline. Though it sounds like maybe Illinois might be able to join the party eventually.
But think about this and what potential it opens up with your studies.
Nearly every Master Sommelier and Master of Wine will harp on the benefits of study groups. Even if you are only reaching for the CMS Advance or WSET Diploma level, you can’t overstate the value in sharing ideas and approaches with peers. However, time and distance will always be hurdles when it comes to getting a group together. But with digital platforms like Zoom and Lifetime Vintage doing the logistical legwork, you could set up a tasting group with folks almost anywhere in the US.
This is also a boon for wine educators as well. You could have an instructor in New York hosting a tasting with students in Washington, Colorado, Texas, etc. And everyone will have the same wine to taste and experience. As someone very familiar with how much of a colossal headache the American three-tier system is, I’m in awe at the amount of behind the scenes work that the Lifetime Vintage team had to put in to get this network together.
But it gets even better.
2.) They will curate the bundles based on what you want or need to study.
This was a jaw-dropper for me. I honestly don’t know how long they are willing to do this without eventually raising the price. But this is huge for wine students. Think of all the things that are usually trouble spots for blind tasting.
The evil dwarves of Albariño, Grüner Veltliner, Pinot gris and Chenin.
The numerous laterals of wines that show raisination–Syrah, Grenache, Corvina, Zinfandel.
Pinot noir vs. Gamay.
Brunello vs Barolo.
The strange way that all the red Bordeaux varieties can be so different yet so similar.
You could have Lifetime Vintage come up with a 4 or 6 bottle set for any of that–just email them before you place your order. For those studying for the WSET Diploma D3 Wines of the World exam, you could ask for wines covering the four kinds of flights you’ll get.
Protip: You could make your own mock D3 exam with two of the 6 bottle sets. (And get free shipping too)
Three wines from the same grape variety. (Usually different regions.)
Three wines from the same country. (Usually different varieties or winemaking styles.)
Three wines from the same region. (Usually different quality levels or winemaking styles.)
Three unrelated wines. (Hodgepodge Free for All!)
And, of course, you could also use this for non-study fun. As Lauren noted in her write up, these are perfect for hosting a kick-ass, hassle-free tasting party. If you want to do something with friends and family from across the country, you could ask for easy well-known wine styles (NZ Sauv. blanc, Buttery Chard, Napa Cab, etc.) Or all red wines. All whites, rose, sweet wines, whatever.
I mean, if Lifetime Vintage is going to do the logistical legwork of getting these kits together, then why not?
3.) The wines come in half bottles and all are exam quality.
Now, this does yield some limitations since not every wine is offered in this format. But times are changing and wineries are getting smart to the idea that 375ml bottles provide a lot of value. Not only do they fit in with the move towards moderation, but they also limit waste and the need to have a Coravin.
Sure, if you’re doing the six-bottle set all at once, you may still want to Coravin. But resealing and consuming four half-bottles over 2 to 3 days is not going to be a challenge for many wine lovers. And if you’re doing something like what we did with 2 whites one night and 2 reds the next, it’s even easier to ensure that there is no waste.
So How Much?
Right now, the basic four bottle sets are $95 each and the six-bottle sets $135. That’s an average of $23.75 and $22.75 a bottle, respectively. There is also a premium four bottle bundle for $150 ($37.50 bottle ave). While they will curate for free with the basic sets a lot of different things, if you’re asking for something like a Sangio vs. Nebbiolo battle, you’re probably going to be in the premium range.
On top of the base cost, there is a $6.99 procurement fee (same for both 4 & 6 bottle sets). For orders over $195, it’s free shipping, but orders less than that there is a cost. I tested it with my old address in Washington and the shipping was $22.99.
The Nitty Gritty
Based on the wines for our Zoom event, the quality level more than lives up to the price. Jeff of FoodWineClick did the math and noted that the retail price for the four bottles we got in our set came out to $75. Of course, that’s across several different retailers since the odds of finding them all at the same shop are low.
So essentially for that extra cost, you’re paying for:
The curation and preparation of the sets for blind tasting.
The legal and technical logistics of the LV team working with multiple retailers in 44 states to procure the wines and send them to different locations.
The convenience of shipping and home delivery.
As a wine student, think of how much we’re spending already procuring and tasting wines. Think of how tough it is trying to blind taste wines by yourself. To have someone do a lot of that work for you is an immense benefit that is well worth the cost. In one of the videos, I told Dylan of Lifetime Vintage that I honestly think he’s undercharging for his service-especially when you think of what other services like SommSelect charge.
With SommSelect, it’s a monthly subscription locking you into $199 for six bottles.
And these are full 750ml bottles (3 whites, 3 reds). So you pretty much have to use a Coravin or you’re likely going to waste wine. Now, yes, you do get the tasting notes and tips from Master Sommelier Ian Cauble, but it’s still a substantial cost ($2400 a year). While I enjoyed using the SommSelect kits when I was in the States, I ultimately had to drop it because it was just too much.
For almost half of that $2400, I could get 10 of the four bottle Lifetime Vintage blind tasting bundles tailored to what I needto study. At this point in my journey, I don’t need to be blinded on New Zealand Sauvignon blanc, off-dry Mosel Riesling, Alsatian Gewurztraminer or Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m nailing those pretty regularly.
But I still have tons of blind spots and laterals that keep biting me. If I was in the US, you better believe that I would be a frequent customer of Lifetime Vintage. It’s one of the best investments that any wine student could make for their studies.
We’re celebrating one of the world’s greatest wine grapes because of an important document from March 13th, 1435. In an old cellar log from 585 years ago, the estate of Count John IV of Katzenelnbogen in Hessische Bergstrasse noted the purchase of “Riesslingen” vines.
This is widely considered to be the first written account about Riesling. While Jancis Robinson pegs the date as March 3rd, 1435 in Wine Grapes and some sources say it was actually February, the trade org Wines of Germany has declared that today is as good of a day as any to give our regards to Riesling.
I’m totally down with that.
As frequent readers of the blog know, you don’t need much to convince me to drink Riesling. Besides how incredibly food-friendly it is, I absolutely adore how it expresses terroir. From fantastic Australian Rieslings coming out of Mudgee to Napa Valley and numerous Washington State examples, these wines all exhibit their own unique personalities.
Yet they’re always quintessentially Riesling–with a tell-tale combination of pronounced aromatics and high acidity.
While the details of those aromatics change with terroir, that structure of acid is tattooed in typicity. If you don’t overthink it too much with flavors that can tempt you to wonder about Pinot gris, Gruner Veltliner and even Albarino, that acid is what should bring you home to Riesling in a blind tasting. Master of Wine Nick Jackson describes this well in his excellent book Beyond Flavor(received as a sample), noting that, like Chenin blanc, the acidity of Riesling is always present no matter where it is grown.
However, while Jackson describes Chenin’s acidity as creeping up on you like a crescendo–with Riesling, it smacks you immediately like a fireman’s pole. On your palate, all the other elements of the wine–its fruit, alcohol and sugar–wrap around Riesling’s steely acidity. Jackson’s firepole analogy is most vivid when you’re tasting an off-dry Riesling because while you can feel the sense of sweetness ebb, like a fireman sliding down, that acid holds firm and doesn’t move.
Seriously, next time you have a glass of Riesling, hold it in your mouth and picture Jackson’s vertical firepole. It will really change your blind tasting game.
And for some great benchmark bottles to try those skills out on, may I suggest the geeky good wines of Nik Weis St. Urbans-Hof in the Mosel?
Glass window feature of St. Urban at a church in Deidesheim.
Along with his wife, Daniela, Nik Weis is a third-generation winegrower based in the middle Mosel village of Leiwen. His family’s estate, St. Urbans-Hof, was founded by his grandfather, Nicolaus Weis, after World War II. Named after the 4th-century patron saint of winegrowers who hid in vineyards to escape persecution, Weis’ family estate covers 40 hectares along the Mosel and its southern tributary, the Saar.
Many of these plots, including choice plantings in the villages of Ockfen and Wiltingen in the Saar and Piesport in the Middle Mosel, were acquired by Nik’s father, Hermann Weis.
Hermann was also the notable pioneer of Riesling in Canada. Bringing some of his family’s unique proprietary clones of Riesling to the Niagara Pennisula, Weis founded St. Urban Vineyard in the 1970s. Now known as Vineland Estates Winery, cuttings of the Weis clone Riesling from the original vineyard has been used to spread the variety all across Canada. The clones are also used in American vineyards–where they are known as Riesling FPS 01.
But the Weis family’s influence is also felt keenly in Germany as the keeper of the “Noah’s Ark of Riesling.” In his book, Riesling Rediscovered, John Winthrop Haeger notes that the Weis Reben nursery is one of the most renowned private collections of massale selected Riesling clones around. Founded by Weis’ grandfather, the source for much of the bud wood is the family’s treasure trove of old vine vineyards going up to 115 years of age.
Moreover, Master of Wine Anne Krebiehl notes in The Wines of Germany that without the efforts of Weis and his vineyard manager, Hermann Jostock, much of the genetic diversity of Mosel Riesling would have been lost.
Vineyards and winemaking
Depending on the vintage, Nik Weis can make over 20 different Rieslings ranging from a sparkling Brut to a highly-acclaimed trockenbeerenauslese. He also grows some Pinot noir, Pinot gris and Pinot blanc as well.
Nik Weis’ wealth of old vine vineyards makes it easy for him to make this stellar bottle for less than $20.
The family estate covers six main vineyards–three in the Mosel that all hold the VDP’s highest “Grand Cru” designation of Grosse Lage. When these wines are made in a dry style, they can be labeled as Grosse Gewächs or “GG.” These vineyards include:
Laurentiuslay, planted on gray Devonian slate in the village of Leiwen with vines between 60-80 years old.
Layet, planted on gray-blue slate in the village of Mehring with vines between 40-100 years old.
Goldtröpfchen, planted on blue slate in the village of Piesport with vines between 40-100 years old.
Along the Saar, Weis has two vineyards with Grosse Lage status and one with the “premier cru-level” Ortswein status (Wiltinger). Compared to the greater Mosel and the Ruwer, the Rieslings from the Saar tend to have higher acidity because this region is much cooler.
In The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste (another must-have for wine students), Master Sommelier Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay note that despite its more southerly location, the wider Saar Valley acts as a funnel bringing cold winds up through the valley. However, those vineyards closer to the river benefit from enough moderating influence to ripen grapes consistently for drier styles while vineyards further inland tend to be used for sweeter wines.
Bockstein, planted on gray Devonian slate in the village of Ockfen with vines between 40-60 years old.
Saarfelser, planted on red slate and alluvial soils in the village of Schoden with vines between 40-60 years old.
Wiltinger, planted on red slate in the village of Wiltigen with vines dating back to 1905.
As a member of the German FAIR’N GREEN association, Weis farms all his family’s vineyards sustainably. To help reflect the individual terroir of each plot, Weis uses native ambient yeast for all his fermentations.
This was my favorite of all the wines. High-intensity nose of golden delicious apples, apricot and peach with some smokey flint.
On the palate, this wine was extremely elegant with 8% ABV that notches up to medium-minus body with the off-dry residual sugar. However, the high acidity balances the RS well and introduces some zesty citrus peel notes to go with the pronounced tree and stone fruit. Long finish lingers on the subtle smokey note.
Medium-plus intensity nose with riper apples and apricot fruit. It is also the spiciest on the nose with noticeable ginger that suggests some slight botrytis.
On the palate, while medium-sweet, it tasted drier than I expected from the nose. This wine spent some time in neutral (5+-year-old) oak, which added roundness. That texture consequently helps to make this 10.5% ABV Riesling feel more medium-bodied. Moderate length finish is dominated by the primary fruit, but I suspect that this wine will develop into something very intriguing.
It’s crazy to think of drinking century-plus old vines for only around $18.
Sourced from the Weis family’s oldest vines that date back to 1905, this is an insane value for under $20.
High-intensity nose, this is very floral with lilies and honey blossoms. A mix of citrus lime zest and green apples provide the fruit.
On the palate, there is a slight ginger spice that emerges despite it tasting very dry and not something that I would suspect with botrytis. Still well balanced with high acidity that enhances the fruit more than the floral notes from the nose. Long finish is very citrus-driven and mouthwatering.
Another very excellent value sourced from low yielding vineyards between 30-50 years of age.
High-intensity nose with white peach and apricots as well as minerally river stones. This also has some petrol starting to emerge.
On the palate, the stone fruits continue to dominate with a little pear joining the party. Off-dry veering towards the drier side of that scale. The high acidity makes the 11% alcohol feel quite light in body. Moderate finish intensifies the petrol note–which I really dig.
Medium-plus intensity nose. Very citrusy with ripe Meyer lemons. In addition, some apple and honey blossoms emerge to complement it.
On the palate, the lemons still rule the roost with both a zest and ripe fleshy depth. The ample acidity makes the wine quite dry and also introduces some minerally salinity as well. At 12% alcohol, this has decent weight for food-pairing but still very elegant. Moderate length finish stays with the lemony theme.
On YouTube, Kerry Wines has a short 1:37 video on St. Urbans-Hof. It includes some winery views as well as gorgeous vineyard shots that surprised me. While you certainly see those classic steep Mosel slopes, there’s also much flatter terrain as well. I haven’t had the privilege yet to visit the Mosel but will certainly need to check that out.
We’ve covered the exceptions of the Montagne de Reims and Vallée de la Marne in parts I and II of this series. Now we turn our focus to the Côte des Blancs, the “hill of whites.”
Coat of Arms of the Grand Cru village of Avize. Note the color of the grapes.
It’s almost an understatement to say that this region is universally known for world-class Chardonnay. Of all the superlatives in Champagne, this is one you can absolutely take to the bank.
So pretty short article today, eh?
Well, not quite.
I’ve still got a few geeky tricks up my sleeve–including one notable exception. But more importantly, we’re going to look at the why behind the superlative.
Why Chardonnay? And why does no one talk about planting Pinot noir here? After all, it’s also a highly prized noble variety. So why is the entire Côte des Blancs region planted to 85% Chardonnay with only 7% Pinot noir?
To answer that, we need to cut deep as we look at the sub-regions of the Côte des Blancs.
That last one, Montgueux, is a bit of a wild card. I can see why it is officially grouped with the Côte des Blancs. But it’s in the Aube department, just west of Troyes. In comparison to the other subregions, Montgueux is 60 km away from Sézanne and over 100km away from Avize. So I’m going to put this one aside till Part IV.
In Part I & II, I gave a few recommendations of helpful wine books and study tools. Today, I’ll add two more that I’ll be relying heavily on for this article.
Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay’s The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste – This is the perfect companion to Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s World Atlas of Wine. While the latter goes into geeky encyclopedic detail, The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste ties those details back to how they directly influence what ends up in your glass. Great book for blind tasting exams.
James E. Wilson’s Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wines – Not going to lie. This is not a bedtime read. Well, it is if you want a melatonin boost. While chockful of tremendous insight, this is a very dense and technical book. You want to treat this more as an encyclopedia–looking up a particular region–rather than something you go cover to cover with. But if you want to sharpen your understanding of French wine regions, it’s worth a spot on your bookcase. (Especially with used copies on Amazon available for less than $10)
When you think of the Côte des Blancs, think about the Côte d’Or.
Vineyards in the northern Grand Cru of Chouilly with the Butte de Saran in the background.
The Côte des Blancs is essentially Champagne’s extension of the Brie plateau (yes, like the cheese). Over time it has eroded and brought the deep chalky bedrock to the surface. Like the Côte d’Or, both the heart of the Côte des Blancs and Cote de Sézanne have east-facing slopes capped by forests with a fertile plain at the bottom.
This prime exposure is the first to receive warmth from the early morning sun. During the cold spring nights of flowering (after bud break), Chardonnay is most vulnerable as the earliest bloomer. It needs to get to that warmth quickly for successful pollination.
It’s a similar reason why growers in the Côte des Blancs avoid planting near the very top of the slope where there is more clay. The soils here are cooler and don’t heat up as quickly. Plus, being so close to the misty forest cap encourages wetter conditions that promote botrytis. As we covered in Part II, both Chardonnay and Pinot noir are quite sensitive to this ignoble rot.
Echoing back to Burgundy, we see that the most prized plantings of Chardonnay (notably the Grand Cru villages) in the Côte des Blancs are midslope. In the sparse areas where we do find Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier, it’s usually the flatter, fertile plains that have deeper topsoils.
The Tiny Exceptions.
This is the case with the premier cru village of Vertus. While still 90% Chardonnay, the southern end of the village sees more clay and deeper topsoils as the slope flattens and turns westward. This encourages a little red grape planting with fruit from the village going to houses like Duval-Leroy, Larmandier-Bernier, Delamotte, Louis Roederer, Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot.
The village of Grauves is also an interesting case. In his book, Champagne, Peter Liem argues that this premier cru should actually be part of the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay. Looking at a good wine map, you can easily see why. It’s on the other side of the forest cap from the rest of the Côte des Blancs villages–opposite Cramant and Avize. Here most all the vineyards face westward. While Chardonnay still dominates (92%), we see a tiny amount of Meunier (7%) and Pinot noir (1%) creep in.
Likewise, in Cuis–where vineyards make an almost 180 arch from Cramant and Chouilly to Grauves–we see a range of exposures that adds some variety to the plantings (4% red grapes). The home village of Pierre Gimonnet, Cuis is still thoroughly Chardonnay country as a fruit source for Billecart-Salmon, Bollinger and Moët & Chandon.
This video (3:08) from Champagne Pierre Domi in Grauves has several great aerial drone shots of the area.
So you could say, why bother planting Pinot noir when you have such great Chardonnay terroir?
But there are other viticultural reasons for the Côte des Blancs to flavor Chardonnay over Pinot noir. For one, despite the topographical similarities to the Côte d’Or (and Côte de Nuits), the soil is much chalkier in the Côte des Blancs. While Pinot noir likes chalk, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
Chalk has many benefits, but it also has a significant negative.
It’s high calcium content and alkaline nature encourages reactions in the soil that make vital nutrients like iron and magnesium scarce. Both are needed for chlorophyll production and photosynthesis. A lack of these nutrients can lead to chlorosis–of which Pinot noir is particularly susceptible.
The effects of chlorosis can be seen in the yellowing of leaves due to lack of chlorophyll. Considering that all the sugars that go into ripening grapes come from the energy production of photosynthesis, this isn’t great for a wine region that often teeters on the edge of ripeness–especially with Pinot noir.
There is also more lignitic clay down in the Val du Petit Morin and Marne Valley. This picture is from the website of Champagne Oudiette who has vineyards in both areas.
As James Wilson notes in Terroir, the “magical ingredient” to help balance these soils is lignite. In Champagne, lignitic clays are known as cendres noires or “black ashes.” Essentially compressed peat mixed with clay, the cendres noires helps hold these critical nutrients in the soil.
The Montagne de Reims, particularly around Bouzy and Ambonnay (which are home to quarries of cendres noires), naturally has more of this “magical ingredient.” While chlorosis can be an issue for Chardonnay as well–requiring the use of fertilizers or cendres noires to supplement the soil–the risk isn’t as grave.
However, there is one red grape stronghold in the Côte des Blancs.
While still paced by Chardonnay (52%), this is the one area of the Côte des Blancs where you’ll find villages dominated by something else. If you have a good wine map (and read Part II of our series), you’ll see why.
Cutting between the Côte des Blancs and Côte de Sézanne, the Petit Morin is an east-west river that brings with it a fair amount of frost danger. Also, like the Marne, we see more diversity in soils with alluvial sand and clay joining the chalk party.
The Petit Morin also flows through the marshes of Saint-Gond–which played a key role in the First Battle of the Marne during World War I. Swampy marshland (and the threat of botrytis) frustrates Chardonnay and Pinot noir just as much as it frustrated the Germans.
Among the notable villages here:
Congy– (50% Pinot Meunier/28% Chardonnay) The home village of the renowned grower Ulysse Collin. This estate was one of the first to bring attention to the Val du Petit Morin.
Étréchy – The only premier cru outside of the heart of the Côte des Blancs. Neighboring both Vertus and Bergères-lès-Vertus (so away from the river), this follows the narrative of many of its 1er and Grand Cru peers by being 100% Chardonnay.
Villevenard – (53% Pinot Meunier/37% Chardonnay) Along with Sainte-Gemme in the Vallée de la Marne Rive Droite, Leuvrigny in the Rive Gauche and Courmas in the Vesle et Ardre of the Montagne de Reims, this autre cru is a source of Meunier for Krug. It’s also the home of Champagne Nominé Renard whose relatives help pioneer Champagne production in the village.
The video below (6:15) tells a little bit about their story with views of the vineyards starting at the 2:14 mark. You can see here how different the soils look compared to the heart of the Côte des Blancs with the Grand Crus.
Côte de Sézanne
Just about every wine book will describe the Côte de Sézanne as a “warmer, southern extension of the Côte des Blancs.” The region certainly upholds the Chardonnay banner with the grape accounting for more than 75% of plantings.
But most of those wine books are going to ignore the Val du Petit Morin mentioned above. And they’re certainly going to ignore the influence that the swampy Marais Saint-Gond has on the northern villages of the Côte de Sézanne. Here we see villages like Allemant and Broyes, which, while still Chardonnay dominant, have more diversity than the near monovarietal heart of the Côte des Blancs.
Even going south to the namesake autre cru of Sézanne, we see nearly a third of the vineyards devoted to red grapes. Here, further away from the Val du Petit Morin, we still have a fair amount of clay in the soil. This, combined with the warmer climate, shapes not only the Chardonnays of the Côte de Sézanne (riper, more tropical) but also paves the way for red grape plantings.
In the village of Montgenost, south of Sézanne, we get firmly back to Chardonnay country (94%). This is the home turf of the excellent grower Benoît Cocteaux. While the video below (2:12) is in French, it does have some great images of the area.
If the Côte de Sézanne is the southern extension of the Côte des Blancs, then the Vitryat is its southeastern arm. And it’s even more of a “mini-me” than the Sézannais.
Of the 15 autre crus here, four are 100% Chardonnay-Changy, Loisy-sur-Marne, Merlaut and Saint-Amand-sur-Fion. Another four have 99% of their vineyards exclusive to the grape with no village having less than 95% Chardonnay. Yeah, it’s pretty much a white-out here.
Among the teeniest, tiniest of exceptions worth noting are:
Glannes – 97% Chardonnay/3% Pinot noir with fruit going to Moët & Chandon.
Vanault-le-Châtel – 99.1% Chardonnay, 0.3% Pinot noir with 0.6% other (Pinot gris, Pinot blanc, Arbane and/or Petit Meslier). Louis Roederer purchases fruit from here.
Vavray-le-Grand – 99% Chardonnay/1% Pinot noir. A source of fruit for Billecart-Salmon.
The village of Montgueux (which we’ll cover in Part 4) shares the same Turonian era chalk as the Vitryat sub-region. Both are different from the Campanian chalk of the Côte des Blancs and Côte de Sézanne.
Even as the Côte des Blancs exhibits the supreme superlative in its Chardonnay-dominance, looking under the covers always reveals more.
But the biggest takeaway that I hope folks are getting from this series is that both the exceptions and superlatives make sense. The combination of soils, climate and topography lend themselves more to some grape varieties over the other.
This is the story of terroir. The problems come when we start thinking of regions as monolithic and accepting, prima facie, the butter knife narrative about them. Even when the superlatives are overwhelmingly true (i.e., the Côte des Blancs is known for outstanding Chardonnay), the reasons why cut deeper.
We’ll wrap up this series with a look at the Côte des Bar.
Welcome back! To get the lowdown on the series check out Part I where we explore the exceptions of the Montagne de Reims. In Part III and IV, we’ll check out the Côte des Blancs and the Aube/Côte des Bar.
As for today, we’re heading to the Vallée de la Marne.
The Marne river flowing past Épernay in the early 20th century.
If you’re one of those folks who “know enough to be dangerous” about Champagne, you’ll peg the Vallée de la Marne as the Pinot Meunier corner of the holy triumvirate of Champagne. However, as we noted in part one, neatly pigeonholing these regions with a single variety cuts about as deep as a butter knife.
Having good wine maps is an absolute must for any wine student.
Yes, you can find some online. For today’s journey through the Vallée de la Marne,this interactive mapfrom Château Loisel will be useful. But sometimes clicking between computer tabs is annoying compared to a physical map in front of you.
I mentioned the Louis Larmat maps yesterday. But let me give you two more excellent options.
Map of the Vallée de la Marne from the UMC website. In the lower-right, you can see the start of the Côte des Blancs with the Grand Cru village of Avize noted.
Unfortunately, these maps are mostly only available in France. However, I was able to buy several when I lived in the US through Amazon for around $11-13 each. You will still need to pay international shipping. But buying multiples at once helps offset that a little.
Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s World Atlas of Wine is always a reliable resource. It will list many of the villages and show topographical details. The only negative is that it doesn’t highlight the 17 subregions within Champagne.
Across the 103 villages of the Vallée de la Marne, it’s no shock that Pinot Meunier reigns supreme. The grape accounts for nearly 60% of all plantings.
The Marne river meandering by the premier cru village of Hautvillers.
As with many river valleys, frost is always going to be a hazard as cold air sinks and follows the rivers. Compared to larger bodies of waters such as lakes or estuaries, the relatively narrow and low-lying Marne doesn’t moderate the climate as dramatically.
That means that drops in temperature during bud break can be devastating for a vintage. A perfect example of this was the 2012 vintage.
This risk is most severe for Pinot noir. It buds the earliest followed soon after by Chardonnay. Then several days later, Pinot Meunier hits bud break–often missing the worst of the frost.
As we saw with many of the exceptions in the Montagne de Reims, the threat of frost in river valleys tilts the favor towards Meunier. It also helps that the grape is a tad more resistant to botrytis than Pinot noir and Chardonnay. This and other mildews thrive in the damp, humid conditions encouraged by the morning fog following the river.
Finally, while there is limestone throughout the Vallée de la Marne, it’s more marl (mixed with sand and clay) rather than chalk. Pinot noir and Chardonnay can do very well in these kinds of soils. However, Pinot Meunier has shown more affinity for dealing with the combination of cooler soils and a cooler, wetter climate.
But, of course, there are always exceptions–none more prominent than the Grande Vallée de la Marne.
In many ways, the Grande Vallée should be thought of as the southern extension of the Montagne de Reims. Its two Grand Crus, Aÿ and Tours-sur-Marne, share many similarities with its neighbors, Bouzy and Ambonnay.
Along with the “super premier cru” of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, these south-facing slopes produce powerful Pinot noirs with excellent aging potential. Notable vineyards here include Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses, Billecart-Salmon’s Clos Saint-Hilaire and Bollinger’s Clos St.-Jacques & Clos Chaudes Terres (used for their Vieilles Vignes Françaises).
Jamie Goode has a fantastic short video (1:55) walking through the two Bollinger vineyards. One thing to notice is that the vines are trained to stakes and propagated by layering.
Compared to most of the Montagne de Reims, the vineyards here are slightly steeper. They’re also at lower altitudes as the land slopes towards the river. However, in contrast to most of the Vallée de la Marne west of Cumières (the unofficial end of the Grande Vallée), the climate is warmer here–tempering some of the frost risks.
Also, the topsoils are thinner with the influence of chalky bedrock more keenly felt. This is particularly true in the eastern premier cru village of Bisseuil, which is planted to majority Chardonnay (66%) and only 6% Pinot Meunier. These grapes go into the cuvées of many notable Champagne producers. Among them, AR Lenoble, Deutz, Mumm and Gonet-Médeville.
Though Chardonnay is mostly a backstage player in the Grande Vallée, the premier cru Dizy (37% Chardonnay) joins Bisseuil as notable exceptions. This is the home turf of Jacquesson with Perrier-Jouët and Roederer also getting grapes from here.
Across the Grande Vallée, Pinot noir reigns supreme.
It accounts for nearly 65% of all the plantings among the 12 villages of the region. Here Pinot Meunier is a distant third with only around 15% of vineyard land devoted to it.
Meunier slowly starts to creep up in importance the further west you go. Here the soils get cooler and clay-rich with more sand. In the premier cru of Champillon, Pinot Meunier accounts for 31% of plantings and is an important source for Moët & Chandon.
Likewise, in its neighbor to the west, Hautvillers (the historical home of Dom Perignon), Meunier also accounts for around a third of vineyards. Of course, Moët & Chandon sees a good chunk of Hautvillers’ grapes along with Veuve Clicquot, Roederer, Jacquesson and Joseph Perrier.
The vlogger Ben Slivka has a 2-minute video of the area taken from a vista point near Champagne G.Tribaut.
Côteaux Sud d’Épernay
Across the river from the Grande Vallée is the city of Epernay. The hills extending south and slightly west make up an interesting transition area between the Vallée de la Marne and Côte des Blancs.
The chalky bedrock is closer to the surface, with far less sand than most of the Vallée de la Marne. However, there is considerably more clay (and less east-facing slopes) in the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay than the Côte des Blancs. The area is slightly dominated by Pinot Meunier (45%), with Chardonnay close behind at 43%. The city of Épernay, itself, is an autre cru with considerable Chardonnay plantings (60%).
There is also quite a bit of rocky–even flinty-soil in the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay. This is particularly true around the premier cru village of Pierry which was the home of the influential monk, Frère Jean Oudart.
Dom Perignon likely spent his career trying to get rid of bubbles. However, his near-contemporary Oudart (who outlived Perignon by almost three decades) actually used liqueur de tirage (sugar and yeast mixture) to make his wines sparkle intentionally.
Except for Pierry, all the villages of the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay are autre crus.
Another geeky cool thing about Laherte Frères’ Les 7 Champagne is that it’s made as a perpetual cuvee in a modified solera system.
However, there are many notable villages, including Chavot-Courcourt–home to one of Champagne’s most exciting wine estates, Laherte Frères.
While the plantings of Chavot-Courcourt are slightly tilted towards Pinot Meunier (51% to 44% Chardonnay), in Laherte Frères’ Les Clos vineyard, all seven Champagne grape varieties are planted. Here Aurélien Laherte uses Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, Arbane and Petit Meslier to blend with the traditional big three to make his Les 7 cuvée. This is another “Must Try” wine for any Champagne lover.
Further south, we get closer to the Côte des Blancs with thinner top soils leading to more chalky influences. Here we encounter a string of villages all paced by Chardonnay–Moslins (58%) Mancy (52%), Morangis (52%) and Monthelon (51%).
Going back towards the northwest, the soils get cooler with more marly-clay. We return to Meunier country in villages such as Saint-Martin-d’Ablois (80% Pinot Meunier) and Moussy (61% PM)–home to the acclaimed Meunier-specialist José Michel & Fils and a significant source of grapes for Deutz.
Vallée de la Marne Rive Droite and Rive Gauche
As we move west, the superlatives of the Vallée de la Marne being Pinot Meunier country becomes gospel. The cold, mostly clay, marl and sandy soils lend themselves considerably to the early-ripening Meunier. Accounting for more than 75% of plantings, it’s only slightly more dominant in the Rive Gauche than the Rive Droite (70%).
Because of its location, there are more north-facing slopes on the left bank of the Rive Gauche. Conversely, the right bank of the Rive Droite has mostly south-facing slopes. This topography plays into the narrative that the Meunier from the Rive Gauche tends to be fresher, with higher acidity. In contrast, those from the Rive Droite are often broader and fruit-forward.
However, there are several valleys and folds along tributaries running into the Marne. This leads to a variety of exposures in each area. But with these tributaries comes more prevalence for damp morning fog. Along these narrow river valleys, the risk of botrytis-bunch rot increases. While Pinot Meunier is slightly less susceptible than Pinot noir and Chardonnay, it’s still a significant problem in the Marne Valley. The 2017 vintage is a good example of that.
Though not about Champagne, the Napa Valley Grape Growers has a great short video (3:30) about botrytis. While desirable for some wines, it usually wreaks havoc in the vineyard.
Since there are few exceptions in these areas, I’ll note some villages worth taking stock of.
Damery (Rive Droite) – Located just west of Cumières, Damery is on the border with the Grande Vallée. With over 400 ha of vines, it’s the largest wine-producing village in the Vallée de la Marne. Planted to 61% Meunier, Damery is an important source for many notable Champagne houses. Among them, AR Lenoble, Billecart-Salmon, Joseph Perrier, Taittinger, Roederer, Bollinger and Pol Roger.
Sainte-Gemme (Rive Droite) – With over 92% Pinot Meunier, this autre cru is one of Krug’s leading sources for the grape.
Mardeuil (Rive Gauche) – With 30% Chardonnay, this village has the highest proportion of the variety in the Rive Gauche. Henriot gets a good chunk of this fruit along with Moët & Chandon.
Festigny (Rive Gauche) – A solitary hill within a warm valley, this village reminds Peter Liem, author of Champagne, of the hill of Corton in Burgundy. While there is more chalk here than typical of the Marne, this area is still thoroughly dominated by Meunier (87%). Festigny is noted for its many old vine vineyards–particularly those of Michel Loriot’s Apollonis estate.
Gary Westby of K & L Wine Merchants visited Loriot in Festigny where he made the video below (1:12).
Vallée de la Marne Rive Ouest and the Terroir de Condé
We wrap up our overview of the Vallée de la Marne by looking at the westernmost vineyards in Champagne. I also include the Terroir de Condé here because it seems like the classification of villages is frequently merged between the two.
Saâcy-sur-Marne (Ouest) – One of only three authorized Champagne villages in the Seine-et-Marne department that borders Paris. In fact, Saâcy-sur-Marne is closer to Disneyland Paris (50km) than it is to Epernay (70km). Going this far west, the soils change–bringing up more chalk. Here, in this left bank village, Chardonnay dominates with 60%.
Connigis (Ouest) – This is the only village in the western Marne Valley where Pinot noir leads the way. It just scrapes by with 45% over Meunier (41%). On the left bank of the river, Connigis used to be considered part of the Terroir de Condé. Today, Moët & Chandon is a significant purchaser of grapes from this autre cru.
Trélou-sur-Marne – Like all of the (current) Terroir de Condé, this village is overwhelmingly planted to Pinot Meunier (72%). However, it’s worth a historical note as being the first place where phylloxera was found in the Marne. This right bank village also helps supply the behemoth 30+ million bottle production of Moët & Chandon.
Kristin Noelle Smith has an 8-part series on YouTube where she focuses on notable producers of Champagne.
In episode three on Moët & Chandon (26:35), Smith touches on the impact of phylloxera in Champagne.
Though the Marne flows westward, the best way to think of the Vallée de la Marne is as a river of Pinot Meunier that changes as you go east. In the west, it truly lives up to the superlative of Meunier-dominance. This is because of the influence of the river and abundance of cold, clay and sand-based soils. But as we go east, and the river widens by the city of Épernay, the story changes considerably.
The part that “forks” north, the Grande Vallée, shares similarities with the southern Montagne de Reims. Here the terroir takes on more of the characteristics of the Pinot noir-dominant Grand Crus of Bouzy and Ambonnay. Whereas the south fork of the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay becomes gradually chalkier. This explains why you see more Chardonnay-dominant villages the closer you get to the Côte des Blancs.
Nailing these two big distinctions (as well as understanding why Meunier thrives in the Marne) is truly dangerous knowledge. Especially for your pocketbook!
So drink up and I’ll see you for part III on the Côte des Blancs!
19th-century map of the Montagne de Reims. Most of the Grand Crus are visible on the right side of the map, following the tree line down to the Marne river. Also featured are the villages of the Perle Blanche, Petite Montagne and part of the Vallée de l’Ardre which we’ll talk about below.
Montagne de Reims – Known for Pinot noir
Côte des Blancs – Known for Chardonnay
Vallée de la Marne – Known for Pinot Meunier
If they know a little bit more, they’ll throw in the Côte des Sézanne (known for Chardonnay) and the Côte des Bar in the Aube (known for Pinot noir).
None of that is wrong.
But it’s very incomplete and could certainly use a few whetstones. For one, each of those regions that are known for something all have significant exceptions. There are villages or even entire sub-regions that are dominated by other grape varieties.
Map of the Montagne de Reims from the Union des Maisons de Champagne website.
Many times the exceptions are driven by changes in soils and topography. This will consequentially impact the styles of wines coming from these areas. Understanding the exceptions–and why they are exceptions–is vital to having a sharper knowledge about Champagne.
So lets cut through the haze and geek out a bit. My tools for this journey are:
Tomas’s Wine Blog which is, by far, one of the most extensive and worthwhile resource on the individual villages (all 319 of them) of Champagne. Seriously, if you love Champagne, you need to bookmark this page.
Peter Liem’s Champagne. It’s one of the Five Essential Books On Champagne precisely because it dives deep into the many subregions and exceptions of Champagne–giving you fantastic details on why they are exceptions. The box set also includes reproductions of Louis Larmat’s maps of Champagne which are a wine geek’s wet dream.
I’m not kidding about those Larmat maps. Below is a short YouTube video (2:57) made by someone from K & L wine merchants that got their hands on an old copy of the maps from Moët & Chandon. Liem’s book includes the same seven maps–minus the special Moët vineyard annotations.
Part I-Montagne de Reims
Note: Today we’re just going to cover the exceptions and unique terroir of the Montagne de Reims. Now would be a good time to have a map like this of the villages handy to follow the geekery.
The superlative about the Montagne de Reims is that the area produces powerful Pinot noir-based Champagne. It’s a reputation well earned by wines from the Grand Cru villages of Ambonnay, Bouzy, Louvois, Verzenay, Verzy, Puisieulx, Beaumont-sur-Vesle and Mailly. Here you’ll find some of the most highly regarded Pinot noir vineyards in Champagne. This includes names such as Krug’s Clos du Amobonnay, Egly-Ouriet’s Les Crayères, André Clouet’s Les Clos, Pierre Paillard’s Les Maillerettes and Mumm de Verzenay.
Champagne from the northern Grand Cru of Mailly.
But the Montagne de Reims is far from monolithic. For one thing, it’s not even really a mountain. Rather it’s a broad plateau (the Grande Montagne) with a series of hills and valleys encircling Reims.
The Grand Crus on the north and eastern segment (Mailly, Verzenay, Verzy, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Puisieulx and Sillery) have mostly north-facing slopes which produce distinctly different Pinots than those from the south-facing slopes of Ambonnay, Bouzy and Louvois.
While the northern Pinots are still powerful, the root of their power comes more from their firm structure. Among their southern brethren, that power comes from the rich depth of fruit. This is why you see more still red Coteaux Champenois coming from these southern Grand Crus.
But it’s those unique north and north-east facing slopes that brings us to our first notable exception in Montagne de Reims. Sillery.
Across the broader Grande Montagne de Reims we have around 57% Pinot noir, 30% Chardonnay and 13% Pinot Meunier planted. However, in Sillery, Chardonnay leads the pack with almost 60% of plantings. The Champagne house Ruinart, which is well known for its Chardonnay-dominant Champagnes makes Sillery Chardonnay a major component of its prestige cuvée, Dom Ruinart.
In this GrapeRadio video with the cellarmaster of Ruinart, Frédéric Panaiotis, they touch on the distinctiveness of Sillery Chardonnay (3:25)–as well as that of nearby Puisieulx and Verzenay–compared to the Côte des Blancs. These Montagne de Reims Chardonnays, grown in prime Pinot noir territory, have more depth and body which puts their own unique imprint on a wine.
BTW, if you want even more hard-core geeking, check out my Geek Notes on GuildSomm’s interviews with Ruinart’s Frédéric Panaiotis about the process of Champagne and follow up.
While not officially recognized as a sub-region of the Montagne de Reims, sandwiched between the northern & southern Grand Crus is a cluster of four premier cru villages known as the Perle Blanche.
Like the Côte des Blancs (as well as Côte de Beaune), the Perle Blanche vineyards face east and southeast. Here they catch the gentle morning sun before the heat of the day. While there is a deep bed of chalk throughout the Montagne de Reims, its influences are felt more keenly in the very thin topsoils of these premier crus. Trépail and Villers-Marmery particularly stand out with more than 90% of their vineyards (nearly 100% in Villers-Marmery) turned over to Chardonnay grapes that are highly prized by producers such as David Léclapart, Pehu-Simonet and Deutz.
The vlogger, My Man in Champagne, featured David Pehu in an interview (1:54) among his vines in Villers-Marmery. This will give you a good feel for the Perle Blanche.
Pinot Meunier is such an underrated grape variety in Champagne even though it plays an important role in many of Champagne’s most successful non-vintage blends–most notably Krug’s Grande Cuvée and Moët’s Brut Imperial (up to 40% some releases). The calling card of this grape is its ability to bud late but ripen early. This helps it escape the viticultural hazards of bud-killing springtime frost as well as diluting harvest rains.
However, climate change and warmer vintages are stirring up concerns that maybe Meunier ripens a little too early. While blocking MLF may help to retain freshness, it’s likely that the sites with north-facing slopes that have a prolonged growing season will become even more treasured for Pinot Meunier.
Vineyards in Chigny-les-Roses in the northwestern part of the Grande Montagne.
In the Grande Montagne de Reims, Meunier country starts just west of the Grand Cru village of Mailly with the notable premier cru of Ludes. The grape becomes even more important, accounting for almost 60% of plantings, in fellow 1ers Chigny-les-Roses and Trois-Puits.
While these villages don’t often show up on labels, their vineyards (and Meunier) are highly valued by large Champagne houses. Among them, notable names such as Cattier (Armand de Brignac/Ace of Spades), Canard-Duchêne, Laurent-Perrier and Taittinger.
Just a little southwest (heading towards the Vallée de la Marne) is the autre cru village of Germaine. Here Pinot Meunier makes up around 96% of all plantings and is an important source of grapes for Moët & Chandon.
These villages are so under-the-radar that’s it tough to find videos featuring their vineyards.
Instead, I’m going to show you a fun one (1:32) from Benoît Tarlant of Champagne Tarlant. This was filmed in the autre cru village of Œuilly, on the other side of the river from Montagne de Reims in the Vallée de la Marne Rive Gauche.
We’ll talk about the Vallée de la Marne in part II of this series. The north-facing slopes of the Rive Gauche in this frost-prone valley is a natural home for Pinot Meunier. What I love about this video is that you can see how tiny Meunier clusters are. It also gives great insights into what a stressful vintage 2012 was.
Massif de Saint-Thierry
The most northern vineyards in all of Champagne are located northwest of the city of Reims. This is another area of prime Pinot Meunier real estate. The grape makes up around 54% of plantings, followed by Pinot noir (29%) and Chardonnay (17%).
Even the Massif de Saint-Thierry’s most well-known village, the autre cru Merfy, is paced by Pinot Meunier leading the pack with 45% of plantings–trailed by Pinot noir (35%) and Chardonnay (20%). Here the acclaimed grower-producer Chartogne-Taillet makes several highly regarded Champagnes including the vineyard-designated Les Alliées made from 100% old-vine Meunier.
However, the true “heart” of Meunier country in the Montagne Reims is a little further west. Here you’ll find the river valleys of the Vesle et Ardre and the hills of the Petite Montagne. Across this entire region, Meunier holds sway–representing 61% of plantings.
Like the Vallée de la Marne, early spring frost is an issue. Similarly, you tend to see the proportion of Pinot Meunier increase the more west that you go. The grape reaches its apex in the westernmost vineyards of the Vallée de l’Ardre. Also, as in the Massif de Saint-Thierry and Marne Valley, sand plays a considerable role in the terroir.
Les Béguines from Jérôme Prévost’s La Closerie. Such a bloody gorgeous wine. Definitely one of the best Champagnes that I’ve ever had.
The only village of the Vesle et Ardre and Petite Montagne where Pinot noir has any sort of stronghold is the premier cru of Écueil. Planted to 76% Pinot noir, this village is an important source for the houses of Frédéric Savart and Nicolas Maillart.
A common denominator among most of these villages is the prevalence of north and north-east facing slopes.
This is true with the most notable village of the Petite Montagne, the autre cru Gueux. Pinot Meunier-dominant (84.5%), followed by Pinot noir (11.7%) and Chardonnay (3.8%), Gueux is the home of Jérôme Prévost’s La Closerie and his Les Béguines vineyard.
Prévost’s Les Béguines cuvée, almost entirely Meunier (some releases will have a tiny amount Pinot gris or Chardonnay blended in), is widely credited with reigniting interest in the grape variety. It’s certainly a wine that everyone should have on their “Must-Try” list.
We’ll wrap up our overview of the exceptions to Pinot noir’s dominance in the Montagne de Reims by looking at the area’s most overlooked sub-region–the Monts de Berru. This tiny cluster of five villages, located in the hills east of Reims, are the easternmost vineyards of the Montagne de Reims. Only a few villages in the Côte des Bar and the Vitryat sub-region of the Côte des Blancs extend further east.
Located just east of Reims, the Monts de Berru saw a lot of fighting during WWI, particularly during the Battle of the Hills. The 5 Champagne villages are highlighted on this map which notes French offensive gains during April & May of 1917.
Now given their northern and easterly location, you can probably guess which grape variety thrives here.
Across the 5 villages, it represents 92% of all plantings with the autre crus of Pontfaverger-Moronvilliers (100% Chardonnay going almost entirely to Moët & Chandon) and Nogent-l’Abbesse (99% of plantings) virtually exclusive to Chardonnay.
The one outlier is the north-eastern village of Selles that is planted to 94% Pinot Meunier and 6% Chardonnay. Here, too, Moët & Chandon seems to be the most significant purchaser of grapes from this autre cru.
Another Champagne house that source grapes from the Monts de Berru is Pommery as well as Pol Roger which owns vineyards in the namesake village of Berru.
Don’t fret. The next few parts in this series covering the exceptions of the Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs and the Aube won’t be nearly as long. However, the Montagne de Reims was the best starting point to reframe folk’s thinking about the regions of Champagne.
It’s entirely too simplistic to say that the Montagne de Reims is “known for Pinot noir.” This is particularly true when there are notable Grand Cru and premier cru villages that stand out for other varieties.
The biggest reason why this “Butter Knife Knowledge” of Champagne is so pervasive is that, historically, we don’t really think that deeply about the terroir of Champagne. This is largely because the big négociant brands of Champagnes–which dominate the market–rarely talk about terroir at all.
We’re so used to thinking of Champagne as a blend of dozens, if not hundreds of villages, that it doesn’t seem like it’s worth the bother. On back labels and tech sheets, the best you ever get from most large houses is that the Chardonnay came from the Côte des Blancs, the Pinot noir from the Montagne de Reims and the Meunier from the Vallée de la Marne.
Though only from an “autre cru”, the wines of Chartogne-Taillet exploring the terroir of Merfy shows that the Champagnes of the Massif de Saint-Thierry can stand up to any Grand Cru.
That’s a big reason why I wanted to do this series. I wanted to highlight the villages with distinctive terroir that makes them exceptions to the superlatives.
But beyond just reading about these exceptions, you need to taste. I highly encourage Champagne lovers to explore the many growers who produce single cru and single-vineyard wines. This is another area where Tomas’s wine blog is such a fantastic resource. Near the bottom of each village profile, Tomas lists many of the growers and négociants who produce wine from each place.
The Christie’s Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine will also list the villages of most growers in their producer profiles. Additionally, they note many individual growers that tend to be the most expressive of a cru’s terroir. These are all tremendous tools to help sharpen your understanding of Champagne.
The wine world has a wicked way of promoting FOMO–a fear of missing out.
From the luxury end, there are cult wines and trophy bottles. In years past, score hounds would scavenge the shelves looking for highly-rated gems before they sold out.
Now for wine geeks and wanderlust Millennials, the entire world of wine is a temptress. But what we fear missing out on is not what the pack is gobbling up. Instead, our minds quiver at the thought of missing out on what’s new and exciting by settling for what’s old and boring.
Why feel content with the same ole Cab and Chardonnay when you could have Touriga Nacional and Grenache blanc?
Yeah, Champagne is charming. Prosecco is perfect for patio sipping. But that’s what everyone else is drinking. It’s what you can find in every wine shop. You can’t have FOMO if there is nothing to be missed.
And that’s the dirty little secret of the human psyche.
Despite the real repercussions when we let FOMO reach anxiety levels, we still crave it. We still crave the thrill of the hunt. But how much thrill is there in shooting ducks in a basket?
In the world of sparkling wine, finding premium Aussie bubbles is a tough unicorn to bag. Unless, of course, you’re one of the 25 million people who call Australia home.
Now yes, we’ll get some sparkling Shiraz exported.
Actually Australia is home to many unicorns. If only I could’ve found a way to keep these frozen for the plane ride home.
Though the ones that make their way to the US tend to be mass-produced and underwhelming. Of course, there is the ubiquitous YellowTail, which has several sparklers in their line up. However, that’s basically the “Fosters of Australian wine”–a well-known ambassador but not really a benchmark.
But only around a fifth of Australia’s sparkling wine production gets exported. That means you need to go down under to even get a hint of what the rest of the world is missing out on. Luckily, I got such a chance this past October during the Wine Media Conference.
There, in both the Hunter Valley and neighboring Mudgee, I was able to try several sparkling wines that I could never find in the States. But I barely scratched the surface. Even spending extra time in Sydney, I found that the highly regarded Tasmanian sparklers were surprisingly difficult to find.
I’ll share my thoughts on many of the sparklers I tasted below. But first a little geeking about Australian sparkling wine.
Australia isn’t an “emerging” sparkling wine producer.
I’d imagine it was quite the scandal having a non-French sparkler served to the French emperor.
Up in the Hunter Valley, James King began producing sparkling wine around 1843. King’s wines would receive great international acclaim–doing particularly well at the 1855 Paris Exposition. Yes, that1855 Paris Exposition. At the end of the event, King’s sparkling Australian wine was selected as one of only two wines that were served to Napoleon III at the closing banquet.
It’s hard to know exactly what these first Aussie sparklers were. King, in particular, was noted for the quality of his Shepherd’s Riesling (Semillon). However, he also had Pinot noir in his vineyard as well.
These early Australian sparklers were made using the traditional method of Champagne.
The 20th century saw more innovation in sparkling wine techniques with producers experimenting with a “twist” on the Champagne method known as the Transfer Method or transvasage. (We’ll geek out more about that down below) The exact date and who was the first to pioneer this technique in Australia is not known though Minchinbury helped popularize its use.
In 1939, Frederick Thomson started using carbonation (or the “soda method”) to make his Claretta sparkling fizz. We should note that while many cheap sparkling wines (including some so-called “California Champagnes”) are made with added carbonation, in Australia these wines can’t be labeled as “sparkling wines.” Only wines that get their effervescence through fermentation (either in a bottle or tank) can use the term.
Speaking of tanks, adoption of the Charmat method took hold in the late 1950s–beginning with Orlando’s Barossa Pearl Fizz. Today, the tank method is gaining in prominence–especially with the strong sparkling Moscato and “Prosecco” market in Australia. (More on both of those a little later too.)
The 1980s saw a spark of French interest in Australia.
Much like in California, the big Champagne houses took an interest in Australia’s growing sparkling wine industry. In 1985, both Roederer and Moët & Chandon invested in new estates.
Roederer help found Heemskerk as a joint-venture in Pipers Brook, Tasmania. But eventually Roederer moved on from the project–selling back their interest in the estate in 1994.
Throughout Australia, sparkling wine accounts for around 6% of production. In Tasmania, that number jumps up to 30%.
Moët’s Domaine Chandon at Green Point in the Yarra Valley of Victoria, though, saw immediate success thanks to the work of the legendary Tony Jordan–who sadly passed away earlier this year.
Like Roederer, LVMH also looked to Tasmania as a potential spot for sparkling wine production. However, they wanted a location more prime for tourism and cellar door sales.
Bollinger was also briefly a player in Australia’s sparkling wine scene through their partnership with Brian Croser in Petaluma. However, the hostile takeover of that brand by the Lion Nathan corporation in 2001 seemed to have ended Bollinger’s involvement.
Today, except for Domaine Chandon (and Pernod Ricard’s Jacob’s Creek), most all of the Australian sparkling wine industry is wholly domestic. This makes me wonder if this is why Aussie sparklers are so hard to find outside of Australia?
Even the most prominent players like Treasury Wine Estates (Wolf Blass, Penfolds, Seppelt, Heemskirk, Yellowglen) and Accolade Wine (Banrock Station, Arras, Bay of Fires, Hardy’s, Croser, Yarra Burn) have their origins as Australian conglomerates before they gained an international presence.
Understanding this is a big part of understanding Australian sparkling wine. Like the traditional method, fermentation happens in the bottle. However, it’s not happening in the bottle that you’re taking home. Instead, after secondary fermentation and aging, the wine is emptied into a pressurized tank at around 0°C where the lees are filtered out. Then the sparkler is bottled anew with its dosage.
The Champenois themselves use transvasage for 187ml airline splits and half bottles as well as large format Champagnes starting with double magnum (3L Jeroboam) in size. This is because these odd formats would be difficult to riddle without excessive breakage.
The Australians were keen to adopt the labor and cost-saving benefits of the transfer method and it’s the most widely used technique. It allows wineries to increase efficiency without sacrificing the quality character of autolysis. Ed Carr of Accolade Wines noted in Christie’s that the difference is as much as $30-40 AUD per case compared to traditional riddling. Plus, winemakers can do one last “tweaking” (such as SO2 and acidity adjustments) before final bottling.
However, many boutique producers stick to using the traditional (instead of transfer) method. These bottles are labeled stating “Methode champenoise,”“Methode traditionnelle” or simply “Fermented in this bottle.”
The sparklers that are made using the transfer method are more likely to state that they are “Bottled Fermented” or “Fermented in the bottle.”
Australian Moscato & “Prosecco”
As elsewhere in the world, Australia has had its own “Moscato Boom.”
Now usually Moscato is associated with the Moscato bianco grape of Asti (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains). However, in Australia, the term is used to refer to the whole Muscat family when the wine is made in a light, sweet style with low alcohol. So a bottle of sparkling Australian Moscato can be made from Moscato bianco, Muscat of Alexandria, Orange Muscat, Moscato Giallo or a blend of multiple Muscats.
The King Valley in north-east Victoria has a strong Italian heritage. The Glera/Prosecco grape thrives in the cooler southern end of the valley with vineyards planted at higher altitudes.
Australian Prosecco is also apparently a big deal–though I didn’t personally encounter any bottles on my trip. The first Australian Prosecco was made by Otto Dal Zotto in King Valley (or “Victoria’s little Italy”) in 2004. The success of that wine and others caught the attention and ire of producers in the Veneto.
This led Italian authorities to take some dramatic steps in 2009. First, they petitioned the EU to change the grape’s name from Prosecco to Glera. Then they expanded the DOC to the province of Trieste, in Friuli Venezia Giulia, where there is a village named Prosecco. This gave them the justification to claim the entire region as a protected geographical area.
Obviously Australian wine producers balked at this with the conflict between the two parties still ongoing. But while Australian Prosecco can be sold domestically, none of these wines can be exported into the EU.
A few of the Australian Sparklers I’ve enjoyed this year.
Amanda and Janet de Beaurepaire at their family estate. Amanda’s parents, Janet and Richard, started planting their 53 hectares of vineyards in 1998.
De Beaurepaire 2018 Blanchefleur Blanc de Blancs – $45 AUD (Purchased additional bottles at winery)
I’ve got a future article planned about the intriguing story of the De Beaurepaire family and the genuinely unique terroir they’ve found in Rylstone, southeast of Mudgee. The family’s name and ancestors come from the Burgundian village of Beaurepaire-en-Bresse in the Côte Chalonnaise. So it’s no surprise that their wines have a French flair to them.
It’s also no surprise that their 2018 Blanchefleur was quite Champagne-like. Indeed, it was the best sparkling wine I had on the trip. A 100% Chardonnay with 15 months on the lees, this wine had incredible minerality. Coupled with the vibrant, pure fruit, it screamed of being something from the Cote de Blancs. I’m not kidding when I say that this bottle would stack up well to a quality NV from a grower-producer like Franck Bonville, Pierre Peters, De Sousa or Pertois-Moriset.
Peter Drayton 2018 Wildstreak sparkling Semillon-Chardonnay – $30 AUD
I had this at an Around the Hermitage dinner that featured many gorgeous wines. But the folks at the Around Hermitage Association started things right with this 80% Semillon/20% Chardonnay blend that spent 18 months on the lees. Hard to say if this was transfer method of not. However, the toasty autolysis notes were quite evident with biscuit and honeycomb. Very Chenin like. In a blind tasting, I’d probably confuse it with good quality sparkling Vouvray from a producer like Francois Pinon or Huet.
BTW, the Around Hermitage folks made a fun short video about the dinner (3:20) which features an interview with me.
With a blend of 63% Chardonnay, 19% Pinot noir and 18% Pinot Meunier, this is another bottle that is following the traditional method and recipe. Sourced from the cool-climate Orange region of NSW, which uses altitude (930m above sea level) to temper the heat, this wine spent almost two years aging on the lees. Lots of toasted brioche with racy citrus notes. It feels like it has a higher Brut dosage in the 10-11 g/l range. But it’s well balanced with ample acidity to keep it fresh.
Hollydene Estate 2008 Juul Blanc de Blancs – $69 AUD
Hollydene Estate Winery in Jerrys Plains is about an hour northwest of the heart of the Hunter Valley in Pokolbin.
Made in the traditional method, this wine is 100% Chardonnay sourced from the cool maritime climate of the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. It spent over 60 months aging on the lees and, whoa nelly, you can tell. Hugely autolytic with yeasty, doughy notes to go with the lemon custard creaminess of the fruit.
Peterson House 2007 Sparkling Semillon – ($60 AUD)
If you love sparkling wine, make sure you book a trip to Peterson House. Each year they release more than 30 different sparklers. Beyond just the traditional varieties, they push the envelope in creating exciting bubbles. You’ll find sparklers made from Verdelho, Pinot gris and Sauvignon blanc as well as Chambourcin, Petit Verdot and Malbec.
I’m generally not a fan of overly tertiary sparklers. But this wine made a big impression on me during the conference.
Wow! A vintage sparkling traditional method Semillon that spent 11 years on lees. 11 years!
Robert Stein NV Sparkling Chardonnay and Pinot noir – $25 AUD
I raved about the Robert Stein Rieslings in my recent post, Send Roger Morris to Mudgee. But there are so many good reasons to put this winery (and the Pipeclay Pumphouse restaurant) on a “Must Visit Bucket List”. The entire line up is stocked with winners–including this Charmat method sparkler.
At first taste, I had this pegged for transfer method. It wasn’t as aggressively bubbly and frothy as many tank method sparklers can be. However, the considerable apple blossom aromatics should have tipped me off. If this ever made its way to the US for less than $30, I’d recommend buying this by the case.
Gilbert 2019 Pet Nat Rose – $25 AUD (Purchased additional bottles at winery)
Gilbert’s Sangio Pet-Nat was just bloody fantastic. I wish I brought more than one bottle home.
It’s always trippy to have a wine from the same year (2019)–especially a sparkler. Gilbert harvests the Sangiovese in February and bottles before the first fermentation is completed each year. Released in July, this wine was surprisingly dry and is teetering on the Brut line with 12.5 g/l residual sugar. Very clean with no funky flavors, this wine had a beautiful purity of fruit–cherry, strawberries, watermelon and even blood orange.
The Christie’s Encyclopedia notes that Domaine Chandon shot out of the gate partly because of the lessons that Tony Jordan learned at Napa’s Domaine Chandon. In particular, Jordan was well aware of the challenges of dealing with grapes from warm climates. In Australia, Domaine Chandon casts an extensive net by sourcing from cool-climate vineyards in both Victoria and Tasmania. They have vineyards not only in the Yarra Valley but also in the King Valley, Macedon Ranges, Whitlands Plateau and Strathbogie Ranges as well as the Coal River Valley region in Tasmania.
For the fruit that comes from Tasmania, Domaine Chandon follows the tact used by many Australian sparkling wine producers. They press the fruit at local press houses in Tasmania before transporting the must in refrigerated containers to the mainland. This helps maintain freshness and ward off spoilage organisms.
The 2013 vintage Brut is 47% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot noir and 3% Pinot Meunier. As in Champagne, Domaine Chandon ages their vintage sparklers at least 36 months on the lees. Fully fermented in the same bottle, it tastes very similar to other Moët & Chandon sparklers with rich, creamy mouthfeel holding up the ripe apple and citrus notes. An enjoyable bottle priced in line with its peers.
Bleasdale Sparkling Shiraz (tasted in London at the WSET School) – Around 15 euros
I’ll admit that the color of sparkling Shiraz is always very striking.
Admittedly I’m still on the search for a genuinely impressive sparkling Shiraz. But this Bleasdale came close. Like the Paringa I’ve reviewed previously, it’s sweeter than my ideal though I get the winemaking reasons behind that.
Sparkling red wines are notoriously tricky to pull off because you have to balance the tannins. This is why many of these wines often have more than 20 g/l sugar.
Most sparkling reds come from the same regions as premium Australian still reds. Think places like the Barossa, McLaren Vale or the Langhorne Creek (Bleasdale). Interestingly, producers will harvest these grapes at the same time as those for still reds wine. Instead of harvesting early to retain acidity, producers want the extended hang time for riper tannins.
However, these sparklers sorely need acidity to balance both the intense fruit and sweetness. While secondary fermentation does add carbonic acid, I suspect that these wines are routinely acidified.
Still, this Bleasdale had enough balance of acid to go with the dark plum and delicate oak spice. That got me wondering how well this would pair with BBQ pulled pork.
Or, if I’m brave, maybe I’d pair some of these Aussie sparkling unicorns with steak de cheval.
A few quick thoughts on the Arthur Metz Cuvee Prestige Cremant d’Alsace.
Founded in Marlenheim in 1904, Arthur Metz was an early pioneer of sparkling Cremant d’Alsace. However, he wasn’t the first with Julien Dopff of Dopff au Moulin likely beating Metz by a couple of years after being inspired by the wines of Champagne while visiting the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition.
However, there is some evidence that Alsatian winemakers were making sparkling wines in the traditional method as early as the late 19th century. The official AOC for Cremant d’Alsace would later be established on August 24, 1976.
Today the house of Arthur Metz includes three properties (Domaine de la Ville de Colmar, Clos St-Jacques and Hospices de Colmar) as well as two pressing rooms–Scharrachbergheim in northern Alsace and Epfig in central Alsace. The estate also works with more than 400 small growers giving the winery access to over a 1000 hectares of grapes.
The Cuvee Prestige is a blend of Pinot blanc, Pinot noir and Riesling grapes grown from both estate and contract fruit. Some releases may also have Auxerrois blended in. Other cremants in the Metz line-up will sometimes feature Pinot gris and Chardonnay. The wine was aged 12 months on the lees before being bottled with a brut level dosage.
The Granny Smith apple notes of this wine tastes very fresh.
Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of citrus and apple tree fruit notes. There is also some white flowers.
On the palate, the citrus becomes more defined as Meyer lemon, but the apple notes are the most prominent. The wine has a lively mousse that is silky without being creamy. My best guess of the dosage is in the 0.7-0.9 g/l range. The long finish adds freshness to the apples like sliced Granny Smiths.
At $16-20, this is a very solid sparkling Cremant that’s on the crisp and light side of the equation. Excellent warm weather bubbles that are refreshing without being weighty. Definitely a bottle I’ll be getting again.
The Zweifel family founded their eponymous company in Höngg in 1898. Previously, the family were viticulturists who were growing vines since at least 1440. But hard economic times, as well as the devastation of phylloxera, encouraged Emil and Paul Zweifel to move into the wine and fruit juice trade.
In the 1960s, the family returned to viticulture with the planting of several vineyards. Today, in addition to selling wine from across the globe at their various wine shops, Zweifel makes private-label Swiss wine. The fruit for these wines is sourced from vineyards throughout northeast Switzerland–including several urban sites in Zurich.
In one such vineyard, Lattenberg along Lake Zurich, Zweifel help pioneer the plantings of Syrah and Sauvignon blanc in Switzerland.
A vineyard in Höngg snuck between housing development and the local church overlooking the Limmat river.
The Höngg quarter in the 10th district of Zurich has had a long history of viticulture with vines planted during the time of the Reformation. The most renown vineyard was Chillesteig planted on a sloping hillside along the Limmat river.
In the 1880s, problems took their toll on viticulture in the area with downy mildew and phylloxera devasting the vines. Aided by the industrialization and urban growth of Zurich, the last vines were grubbed up in 1942.
In 1968, Heinrich Zweifel, whose family has been in Höngg since the 14th century, started replanting the Chillesteig vineyard. His goal was to produce wine for his family’s wine shop. Today the 3.2 ha (8 acres) vineyard is planted to several varieties including Pinot noir/Clevner, Pinot gris, Cabernet Dorsa (a Cabernet Sauvignon x Dornfelder crossing), Prior, Riesling x Silvaner (Müller-Thurgau) and Räuschling.
Zweifel farms the vineyard sustainably under Suisse-Garantie ecological performance certification (ÖLN). Nando Oberli tends to the vines while Paul Gasser makes the wines at Zweifel’s Ellikon an der Thur winery in the Winterthur District.
The 1546 edition of Bock’s Kreutterbuch was one of the first documents to mention the cultivation of Räuschling.
Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that the origins of Räuschling date back to at least the Middle Ages.
Likely originating in the Rhine Valley, the first mention of the grape (under the synonym Drutsch) was in Hieronymus Bock‘s 1546 edition of Kreutterbuch (“plant book”). Here Bock describes it growing in the town of Landau in Rhineland-Palatinate.
By 1614, it was in the Franken region under the name of Reuschling. Local records in the area showed that producers were pulling up vines of Gouais blanc (Weißer Heunisch) in favor of Reuschling and another variety, Elbling.
The modern spelling of Räuschling emerges in the mid-18th century along with the synonym Zürirebe, meaning “grape of Zurich.” Over the next couple of centuries, plantings of Räuschling would gradually become more centralized around Zurich as vines disappeared from Germany and Alsace. Even in its stronghold of Northern Switzerland, the grape fell out of favor in the 20th century as more productive varieties like Müller-Thurgau took over.
By 2009, there was only 23 ha (57 acres) of Räuschling growing in Switzerland. Most of these plantings are in the canton of Zurich.
Parentage and relationship to other grapes
Gouais blanc is a parent vine of many varieties including Räuschling.
DNA analysis has suggested that Räuschling is a natural cross of Gouais blanc and Savagnin (Traminer). This would make it a full sibling of Aubin blanc and Petit Meslier as well as a half-sibling to Chardonnay, Gamay, Auxerrois, Sauvignon blanc, Riesling, Elbling, Aligoté, Chenin blanc, Colombard, Grüner Veltliner, Blaufränkisch, Melon de Bourgogne, Knipperlé and Sacy.
Two of these half-siblings, Riesling and Knipperlé, are vines that plantings of Räuschling is sometimes confused for in old vineyards in Germany and Alsace.
Note: This tasting note is from my June 2017 visit to Zurich.
Lots of citrus Meyer lemon notes in this wine.
Medium intensity nose. Meyer lemons with some white floral notes that aren’t very defined.
On the palate, those citrus lemon notes come through and are amplified by the high acidity. The medium body of the fruit helps balance the acid, keeping the wine tasting dry and crisp. There is a phenolic texture to the mouthfeel that reminds me a bit of a Muscadet from Melon de Bourgogne. However, there are no aromatic signs of lees contact. Nor is there any trace of oak. Moderate finish continues with the mouthwatering lemony notes.
This wine tasted like what you would get if a Muscadet and lighter French Sauvignon blanc (like a Saint-Bris) had a baby. The texture and mouthfeel make me think of Muscadet but the citrus and high acidity remind me of Sauvignon blanc.
However, it doesn’t have the minerality of a good Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine or a Loire Sauvignon blanc. But I can see this pairing with a lot of the same dishes (particularly shellfish). I can also see it being a nice change of pace from New Zealand Sauvignon blanc. It would especially appeal to folks who want less green notes or pungent tropical fruit.
For around $18-23 USD, I would still be quite interested in trying a new vintage of the Zweifel Räuschling. You are paying a bit of a premium for the novelty of the grape variety and small urban production. But you are paying a premium on virtually every wine in Zurich.
Still, if you happen to be in the area and want a taste of local flavor, it’s well worth exploring.
Back in 2013, GuildSomm did a fantastic podcast with Frédéric Panaiotis (39:33) of the Champagne house Ruinart about how Champagne is made. They followed it up with another interview with Panaiotis this year on Champagne (44:54) that also featured Rodolphe Péters of Pierre Péters.
Both shows are chock-full of awesome behind-the-scenes insights about Champagne that are well worth listening to. I’m going to break down the 2013 episode here first and then devote another Geek Notes to the second interview.
As I mentioned in my post SpitBucket on Social Media, the purpose of my Geek Notes features are to highlight valuable resources for wine students pursuing various certifications.
Wine podcasts are a big focus for me because I think they’re often extremely underutilized. It’s easy for wine students to bury their heads in books and create flash cards. But we shouldn’t discount that nearly a third of individuals are auditory learners. Furthermore, for the 65% who are visual learners, exposing ourselves to audio avenues helps reinforce the material that we’re learning.
This is essentially what I’m doing for myself with these Geek Note reviews of podcasts. I’m primarily a visual learner so I’m always diving into one wine book or another. But when I’m going deep on a topic, I supplement that book learning by listening to related podcasts.
When I come across a podcast with useful information, I go back to listen to it a second time. This time, I take notes. It’s like recording your class lectures back in college. You spend class time actually listening to the instructor and absorbing the material first without distracting scribbling and note taking. But then you solidify the material in your mind by going back to the recorded lecture for notes.
A little bit of a review element.
While I’ll include timestamps, I don’t really intend for these posts to be transcriptions. If I’m doing a review of a podcast, it’s because I feel that it is sincerely worth listening to. There will often be contextual tidbits and stories featured in these episodes that I won’t mention or fully address. You can get more out of these Geek Notes by checking out the podcasts for yourself after reading these posts.
For newer podcasts like my recent reviews of the Decanted podcast and the Weekly Wine Show, I’ll spend more time giving background about the podcast and why I think they’re worth subscribing to.
Statue of Dom Thierry Ruinart (1657-1709) outside the Champagne house Ruinart in Reims.
(0:52) Prior to joining Ruinart, Frédéric Panaiotis also previously worked for Veuve Clicquot, the CIVC as well as the California sparkling wine producer Scharffenberger in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino.
(3:16) Historically, the CIVC used to set one general ban des vendanges for the region. This is the first day that grapes can be legally harvested. Now there are multiple ban des vendanges based not only on the village but also on the individual grape variety. And apparently rootstock in some cases too.
I’m curious about the ban des vendanges for other grape varieties–Fromenteau/Pinot gris, Pinot blanc, Petite Meslier and Petite Arbanne. I couldn’t find the answer online but I’ll keep looking.
BTW, August start dates were historically unusual in Champagne but are now becoming much more commonplace. This recent 2018 vintage was the fifth year since 2003 to begin in August.
(5:45) You can get a special allowance from the CIVC to harvest earlier. According to Panaiotis, this may be needed if you are harvesting from a really young vineyard of 3 years or were hit by spring frost which drastically reduced yields. Apparently with less clusters to focus on, the vine will accelerate ripening.
That strikes me a bit curious because wouldn’t the same logic apply to old vines which also produce lower yields. Wouldn’t they also ripen faster? Need to research this more.
Harvest Brix and Ripeness
Chardonnay grapes harvested in the village of Vertus.
(6:21) Panaiotis notes that the Champenois usually aim to harvest grapes at around 10% potential alcohol which is about 18-19° Brix. Compare this to typical still wine production where producers want to harvest Chardonnay more at 20-23° Brix and Pinot noir around 25-27°. But, keep in mind, the secondary fermentation of Champagne (where sugar and yeast are added) adds more alcohol to the finish wine. Most Champagnes finish with an ABV in the 12-12.5% range.
(8:00) A big distinction that GuildSomm’s Geoff Kruth and Panaiotis note about Champagne is that even at these low brix levels, the grapes are still ripe. Panaiotis gives the example of the 1988 vintage which was picked at many estates at around 9.2% potential alcohol (17.5° Brix) in a year that was a late harvest for Champagne. This vintage is still highly regarded for its richness and longevity. Yet harvesting something at so low of a brix level in most any other wine region would produce wines abundant in green, unripe flavors.
This is a quandary that sparkling wine producers from warmer climates like California and Spain have to deal with because acidity is also at play. Not only is it hard to get desired ripeness with such low brix but you need to harvest your grapes with ample acidity. While improvements in viticulture and planting in cooler vineyard sites have helped, historically producers from warm regions have needed to harvest the grapes at lower ripeness levels in order to have enough acid to make their sparkling wines.
The Controversial 1996 Vintage
(8:55) In contrast to 1988, Panaiotis describes the 1996 as an “unripe” year even though the grapes were harvested at 10.5% potential alcohol (20° Brix). This is intriguing because there is a lot of controversy going on now about the 1996 vintage which Jancis Robinson aptly explains in one of her Financial Times articles.
When the 1996 Champagnes were first released, many Champagne lovers were enthralled. That year was pegged as one of the top vintages of the 20th century. I will admit that, even though I’ve been extremely underwhelmed by their recent offerings, the 1996 Dom Perignon was one of the greatest wines that I’ve tried in my lifetime. But I had that wine soon after release and it seems that as the 1996s across the board have aged, more and more people are re-evaluating how good that vintage really was.
Challenges of Big Houses
By law, Champagne grapes have to be harvested whole cluster and by hand.
(9:20) Here Panaiotis talks about the challenges that big houses have versus small growers with harvest–particularly with red grapes like Pinot noir. Because the goal in Champagne most often with Pinot is to make a white wine, time is of the essence as soon as you remove the cluster from the vine. You don’t want any “cold soak” color extraction taking place in the pick bin. With Chardonnay, avoiding oxidation of the juice is also a concern for many houses.
But what do you do when you are a large house whose winery is maybe several miles away from the many vineyards you source from? Well worth listening to see how Ruinart responds to this challenge.
(10:30) Machine harvesting is forbidden in Champagne. Part of the reason is because machine harvesters can only harvest individual berries. They do this by using beater bars to separate the berries from clusters on the vine. If you’re curious, this short (2:18) ad video for a mechanical harvester gives a great inside view into how these harvesters work. Panaiotis thinks that even if someone developed a machine that could somehow harvest grapes whole cluster that it would still probably be outlawed.
A modern bladder press.
(11:54) Panaiotis estimates that among the various presses used in Champagne, about half are modern bladder presses with the rest being the traditional Coquard basket press. Piper-Heidsieck has a quick 1 minute video of the Coquard press in action with Pinot noir. Note how the juice, even with the whole clusters, is already being tinted with color. And, yes, leaves and other MOG often gets thrown into these large batches.
(12:15) In Panaiotis’ opinion, 70-80% of the resulting quality of the wine comes from the pressing process. This is an interesting departure from the opinion that a lot of the quality of Champagne comes from the blending and time aging on the lees. From here he goes into a great description of the different cuts (cuvée and taille) that are separated in the pressing process. To explain this he uses a comparison that you can do in a vineyard while sampling a single grape berry.
(14:47) At Ruinart, Panaiotis likes using the taille for their non-vintage Champagnes. Here these cuts add roundness and fruitiness but there is a trade-off in decreased aging potential. In contrast, Ruinart’s vintage wines are almost all cuvée juice since the lower phenolics in this first cut is less prone to oxidation.
This makes me curious about the pressing philosophy of Champagne houses that value more oxidative styles like Krug.
Fermenting as separate lots or as regional blends
(16:10) When Kruth asks how Champagne producers keep the juice from different villages and vineyards separate, Panaiotis explains some of the logistical problems of that. While it is ideal to keep different villages separate, it may take you several days to receive enough lots from those villages to eventually fill an entire tank. That reality favors blending more regionally–like all the Côte des Blancs villages together.
I suspect this is more of an issue for large Champagne houses who presumably have very large tanks with several thousand liter capacities that need to be filled. Additionally, with so many contract growers there is probably a fair amount of variability in what kind of yield you can expect each year from different villages/vineyards, etc. In contrast, smaller growers who have been tending their own vines for generations probably know more precisely what they are getting and accordingly have smaller tanks that are easier to fill up and keep separate.
Another key point specific to Ruinart is that their house’s style is very reductive. If the tanks aren’t filled quickly, there is a risk of the juice oxidizing before fermentation takes off.
(17:14) At Ruinart, they aim for very clean and neutral flavors in their base wines. Along with wanting to avoid oxidation, they use sulfur on the juice to also knock back wild yeast so that they can inoculate with cultured yeast. Kruth notes that the impact of wild or native ferment produces flavors that get amplified during the secondary fermentation, something Panaiotis wants to avoid at Ruinart.
Lanson is another house that has historically avoided malolactic fermentation but has recently been experimenting with MLF on a few lots.
(19:30) Panaiotis likes the round mouthfeel that comes from initiating malolactic fermentation in the Champagnes of Ruinart. This is a stylistic decision relating to different Champagne house styles. Some producers, most notably Gosset, historically avoid malolactic fermentation so they can maintain natural acidity and aging potential. But the trade-off is mouthfeel and softness with even Gosset experimenting with having some batches going through MLF.
(20:24) A very interesting discussion on the different philosophy of using reserve wines in the blends of non-vintage Champagnes. Panaiotis describes the impact of using older versus young reserve wines on the resulting style of Champagne. He notes that Ruinart’s precise style favors using younger reserve wines while houses with a more mature style like Charles Heidsieck prefer using older reserve wines of up to 10 years of age.
Secondary Fermentation Issues
(24:18) Probably my biggest surprise was learning about the issues of calcium tartrates in Champagne. If wineries don’t remove these unstable tartrates via cold stabilization, there will be excessive foaming during disgorgement. Worst, this foaming could happen when the wine is opened by consumers–creating a mess. I always thought it was more about aesthetics with consumers mistaking the tartrate crystals for shards of glass.
(25:47) Another completely new thing I learned was that the actual length of time of the secondary fermentation is about 6 to 8 weeks. I always thought it was much quicker like primary fermentation which usually takes several days to a couple weeks. Panaiotis does note that as soon as 3 days after bottling you can start to see the dead lees collecting in the bottle.
(26:52) Panaiotis reveals that recent studies of the Champagne process is showing that oxygen intake through the crown cap or cork is just as impactful on the resulting flavor of the wine as autolysis is.
Oxidative vs Reductive
Bollinger Champagnes have been traditionally associated with an oxidative style of winemaking.
(28:22) Panaiotis goes into an in-depth discussion of oxidative versus reductive winemaking. He details many of the decisions that he has to make throughout the process to promote Ruinart’s reductive style including the unique technique of jetting. Here winemakers add a little bit of water or nitrogen (and sometimes sulfur) to the wine before corking to promote foaming that pushes out the oxygen. This short video (0:52) is in French but shows the process well.
(31:10) Kruth asks for example of major houses who follow the different styles. Panaiotis notes that along with Ruinart, Laurent Perrier, Mumm, Pierre Gimonnet, Pierre Moncuit and Pierre Peters are on the reductive side while Bollinger, Krug, Jacquesson and Jacques Selosse are on the oxidative side. He also notes that Pinot noir favors the more oxidative style. Interestingly, most of the houses he mentions that favor a reductive style tend to be Chardonnay dominant.
(37:40) Panaiotis notes that the CIVC legally limits how many grapes negociants can buy each year. While he didn’t seem completely certain, he estimates that the limit is a maximum of 30% above the equivalent of your previous year’s sales. I’m guessing the CIVC sets these rules to prevent stockpiling? But there is no law on the amount of land you can own. Another tidbit from Panaiotis, growers can buy up 5% of their grapes and still be considered a grower producer.
Ostensibly, it was meant to be a compliment with Siddle noting that Kiwi wines are “consistent, popular and in everyone’s collection”.
But liking a country’s wines to a band that has just as much ink devoted to wondering why they’re so loathed as they do positive press, doesn’t exactly scream “Highly Recommended!”.
With compliments like that, who needs insults?
Dad Music and Mom’s Wine
Nylon columnist Anne T. Donahue aptly summed up the criticism of Coldplay following their 2016 Super Bowl performance as a chafing against “dad music”.
I mean, it’s not that Coldplay was incompetent or bad—they were fine. But “fine” isn’t enough, especially when compared to Beyoncé’s “Formation” battle cry, and her dance-off with Bruno Mars. To appear alongside both artists on stage served only to highlight Coldplay’s normality; to draw attention to the overt safeness of a band we once felt so strongly for, which then reminds us of who we used to be. Ultimately, Coldplay has become the musical equivalent of a friend we had in high school: okay, I guess, but someone you don’t have anything in common with anymore. — Anne T. Donahue, 2/12/2016
I have to admit, that “okay, I guess” sentiment really does encapsulate my thoughts on New Zealand Sauvignon blanc. Maybe Siddle is onto something?
Now don’t get me wrong. New Zealand Sauvignon blanc does have many charms. They’re always exceptionally well made and consistent. Virtually regardless of producer or vintage, you can order a Kiwi Sauvignon blanc and know exactly what you’re going to get.
Grapefruit, passion fruit, gooseberry and guava. Check. Lemongrass, green bean and jalapeno. Check. Crisp, lively mouthfeel. Check.
For students taking blind tasting examinations, you pray that a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc is included in your flight. In a world of so many exceptions, a classic Marlborough Sauvignon blanc is as much of a sure thing as you can get.
Which makes it boring as hell.
When you get what you want but not what you need
There’s no doubt that since Montana Wines/Brancott Estate introduced to the world Sauvignon blanc from Marlborough in the 1970s, it’s been a raging success for the New Zealand wine industry. In 1985, it status was elevated even further when David Hohnen established Cloudy Bay as the first dedicated premium Sauvignon blanc producer in New Zealand.
Soon supermarket shelves and restaurant wine lists were awash with the wine of choice for suburban moms everywhere. Led by labels like Kim Crawford, Nobilo, Villa Maria and Oyster Bay, around 86% of all the wine exported out New Zealand in 2017 was Sauvignon blanc.
The flood of grapefruit and gooseberries to the US alone generated around $571 million in sales. Those figures, coupled with still healthy sales in the United Kingdom, pushed the value of New Zealand exports over $1.66 billion NZ dollars in 2017.
Yet the overwhelming dominance of the industry by one grape variety has given many folks, such as Master of Wine Tim Atkin, reason to question if this is “…too much of a good thing?”
Arguably the biggest problem with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is the influence it has had outside the country. It’s not just the idiotically named Kiwi Cuvée, produced in the Loire Valley by the French company Lacheteau, it’s also the me-too styles that are produced in countries like Chile, South Africa and Australia. Yes, I know that there are different interpretations of New Zealand’s signature grape, but the most successful is the one that someone described as a “bungee jump into a gooseberry bush”. With some residual sweetness, of course. — Tim Atkin, 3/7/2018
The bounty of options of not only authentic New Zealand Sauvignon blanc but also a parade of facsimiles is like skipping over “Clocks” on Spotify only to have the next song be a cover band version.
Is It All Yellow?
Really fantastic Pinot gris from Martinborough. It had some of the zippy acidity and even gooseberry of a NZ Sauvignon blanc with the tree fruits and weight of an Oregon Pinot gris.
Even New Zealand producers are starting to fret about the risks of having all their eggs in one grapefruit basket.
Lucy Shaw of The Drinks Businessquotes Philip Gregan, CEO of New Zealand Winegrowers, at that London panel with Siddle “The challenge now is to broaden the story beyond Sauvignon Blanc. We’re a New World country so we need to be open minded, think differently and come up with fresh ideas in order to keep our wines exciting and relevant.”
The last chapter of Gibb’s book gives tips about visiting the wine regions of New Zealand. This will be extremely handy next year when the wife & I visit the country either before or after the Wine Media Conference in Australia.
If you’re interested in learning more about New Zealand wine–both Sauvignon blanc and the vast diversity beyond that grape–here are a few of my favorite resources.
I highlighted this book back in a July edition of Geek Notes and it has certainly lived up to its billing. By far this is the most comprehensive and in-depth coverage of the New Zealand wine industry that I’ve come across. While a lot of the producers and wine recommendations that Gibb make may be hard to find in the US market, she definitely spends considerable time highlighting the diversity of New Zealand wines beyond Sauvignon blanc.
Chris Scott is a New Zealand native and wine educator in the UK. Sprinkled among the show’s 570+ episodes are numerous interviews with New Zealand wine producers and experts. A few of my favorites are below.
Steve Smith Craggy Range on Terroir (20:27) — Steve Smith is a Master of Wine and here he touches on a lot of the unique aspects of New Zealand terroir–including why not every area is suitable for Sauvignon blanc.
Dr John Forrest of Forrest Estate on Riesling (24:12) — While I haven’t had an opportunity yet to try a New Zealand Riesling, it’s clear that there are some special areas in New Zealand (like the Waitaki Valley in the Central Otago) for the grape.