Tag Archives: Pinot noir

60 Second Wine Review — 2012 Montresor Brut

A few quick thoughts on the 2012 Montresor Brut.

The Geekery

While founded in 1892, the origins of Cantina Giacomo Montresor actually stretches back centuries to France. In the 1600s, Claude de Bourdeille was a counselor to Gaston, Duke of Orléans and participated in a failed plot to assassinate Cardinal Richelieu.

In 1640, Bourdeille was granted the title of Comte de Montrésor and established residency in the medieval Loire castle of Château de Montrésor. His descendants stayed in the Loire Valley till the early 18th century when a branch of the family moved to the Veneto region of Italy. It was from this branch that Giacomo came from and now the fourth generation of Montresors are running the Cantina.

Some sources claim a connection between the Montresor family and the Edgar Allen Poe character Montresor in the Cask of Amontillado, a wine connoisseur, but the connection seems to be more coincidental than deliberate. Literary experts often note Poe’s frequent use of irony and symbolism in character names with mon tresor being French for “my treasure” which can symbolize both Montresor’s prized wine collection and his treasured revenge.

Most noted for their Amarones, the Montresor family owns nearly 250 acres of vineyards throughout Valpolicella and around Lake Garda.

The 2012 Montresor Brut is 100% Pinot noir made via the Charmat method with 4 months aging on the lees before the wine is filtered and bottled under pressure.

The Wine

Photo by Zyance. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-2.5

Sipping this sparkler is like biting into a fresh Golden Delicious.

Mid intensity nose. Apples and white peach. There is a little floral element but it is not very defined.

On the palate it is fresh and smooth, very Prosecco-like. It is more crisp than most Proseccos though. The apple notes carry through with the fresh, crisp acidity reminding me of biting into a Golden Delicious. Moderate length finish that ends very clean.

The Verdict

For around a $10-13 retail bottle, I was quite pleased with this refreshing sparkler.

It kind of hits a middle note between drier, more elegant Cavas and the fresh and smooth mouthfeel of Proseccos.

Exploring The Burn with Borne of Fire

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about this new Washington wine.

In January, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates released their newest wine, Borne of Fire, featuring fruit from the newly proposed AVA The Burn of Columbia Valley. A 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon with 10% Malbec blended in, Borne of Fire is the only wine currently on the market that features fruit exclusively from this new region in Washington State.

The Burn

Located in Klickitat County just west of the Horse Heaven Hills and east of the Columbia Gorge AVA, The Burn encompasses the plateau and benchland bordered by the Columbia River to the south and two creeks (Rock and Chapman) flanking it northwest and northeastern sides. The name comes from the tradition of settlers in the late 1800s and early 1900s of setting the entire plateau on fire in the fall to provide ash and fertilizer that would rejuvenate the grasslands in the spring when the horses needed to be fed.

The first Cabernet Sauvignon vines were planted in 2002 with Chateau Ste Michelle and the Mercer family of the Horse Heaven Hills taking the lead in developing the region. In 2015, plantings were greatly expanded with more Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Syrah, Sangiovese and Chardonnay. Of the nearly 17,000 acres in the proposed AVA, 1261 acres are currently planted with Chateau Ste. Michelle having plans to eventually expand to 2100 acres.

This expansion would surpass the 1671 acres currently planted in Walla Walla and almost reach the 2225 acres planted in Red Mountain.

Map from the Washington State Wine Commission with edits added by the author

Location of The Burn within Washington State


The propose AVA draws some comparison to Red Mountain with its warm temperatures and similar heat accumulation numbers. However, the heat is spaced out over a longer growing season which allows more hang time to ripen stem and seed tannins while still maintaining fresh acidity.

The unique soils of The Burn are a mixture of silt-loam and loess that retains water better than the gravel and sandy loam typical of Red Mountain and many other Eastern Washington AVAs. With an average of 8.7″ of rain, vineyards in The Burn have reduced needs for irrigation and the potential to dry farm in some vintages.

The AVA petition for The Burn was officially accepted October 31st, 2017 with Joan Davenport (of Washington State University and Davenlore Winery), Kevin Corliss (of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates) and John Derrick (of Mercer Canyons) as the petitioners.

Wine Stats

Made by Juan Muñoz-Oca, the head winemaker of Columbia Crest and Intrinsic, at Ste. Michelle Wine Estate’s Paterson facility, Borne of Fire is 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Malbec with the Malbec sourced from the 2015 plantings and being harvested after its second leaf.

With the ripe stem tannins, the Cabernet grapes were mostly fermented whole cluster with the stems. The wine was aged almost a year in large 120 gallon puncheons of Hungarian oak that was lightly toasted as a means of paying homage to The Burn’s history. Around 35,000 cases were produced for the inaugural release with plans for the 2017 release increasing that number to 95,000 cases.

The Wine

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

This very young wine has some fresh red cherry notes.

Medium-minus intensity nose. Very tight. Some red cherry and spice. There is an interesting black tea component on the nose that I usually associate with Pinot noir from the Yamhill-Carlton District (like stuff sourced from Shea Vineyards).

On the palate, the tightness and youth still hold court. Medium plus acidity and medium plus tannins lock the fruit and doesn’t allow much to express itself. Working it around a bit in the mouth lets some red currant join the cherry fruit from the nose. The finish is short but that intriguing mix of black tea and “Malbec-like” spice briefly appears.

The Verdict

At around $23-26, you are buying this wine on its potential–both of the wine and the terroir of The Burn. With the typical Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon usually north of $35, this AVA and wine is worth keeping an eye on.

There are definitely some intriguing hints and I can see this wine developing on a steep learning curve over the next year. Right now, it just needs more bottle age.

60 Second Wine Review — Lallier Brut Rose

A few quick thoughts on the non-vintage Lallier Brut Rose Grand Cru.

The Geekery

In the 2018-2019 edition of his Champagne Guide, Tyson Stelzer notes that while Champagne Lallier is a relatively young house, founded only in 1996, the roots of the Lallier family in Champagne dates back 5 generations.

In 1906, René Lallier inherited Champagne Deutz with that house staying in the Lallier family until 1996 when Louis Roederer took over. The family soon after started their namesake domaine in the Grand Cru village of Aÿ and hired Francis Tribaut as chef de cave in 2000. When James Lallier decided to retire in 2004, he sold the estate to his winemaker with Tribaut taking Lallier from a production of 50,000 bottle to around 400,000 bottles today.

The rose is 100% Grand Cru made of 80% Pinot noir sourced from Aÿ and Bouzy and 20% Chardonnay sourced from Avize. The rose is produced in the saignée method where instead of blending red Pinot noir wine into a white base, the must sees a short period of skin contact for the red grapes with the juice bled off and primary fermentation initiated. This method of rose production is not common in Champagne though houses like Laurent Perrier, Jacquesson, Larmandier-Bernier and Francis Boulard are notable practitioners of this style.

The wine spends 24-36 months on the lees before it is bottled with a dosage of 9 g/l. Around 600 cases are imported to the US.

The Wine

High intensity nose of strawberries and blood oranges. There is a subtle spiciness as well.

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

The blood orange notes in this Champagne are delicious!

On the palate, the Champagne has a lot of weight and silky mouthfeel. Very fresh, vibrant acidity enhances the minerality and gives lift to the wine. The red fruits carry through but the gorgeous blood orange is what persists the most through the long finish.

The Verdict

A delicious Champagne that is the complete package. Beautiful nose, weighty, silky mouthfeel with vibrant fruit and minerality.

It is well worth its $45-50 price tag and easily outshines rose Champagnes that are in the $60-75 range.

60 Second Wine Review — Pierre Gerbais L’Originale

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

The Geekery

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

The estate of Pierre Gerbais is unique in Champagne in that Pinot blanc accounts for nearly a quarter of the domaine’s 43 acres of vines–including some plantings in the historic “Les Proies” vineyard that were planted in 1904. While other estates uprooted their Pinot blanc in favor of the more fashionable Chardonnay and Pinot noir, Pinot blanc’s ability to better handle the humidity and frost that can descend into the river valley around the Gerbais’ estate in Celles-sur-Ource favored its planting.

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

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

The Wine

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

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

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


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

The Verdict

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

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

Cab is King but for how long?

Photo from Wikimedia Commons from George Cattermole and the  Gallery of Shakespeare illustrations, from celebrated works of art (1909). At a 2018 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium panel on Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the directors of winemaking for E. & J. Gallo Winery, Chris Munsell, shared a bit of advice that he learned from a marketing executive.

…for any wine to be successful, it need[s] to be of good quality, known by consumers and profitable for everyone involved. — Wines & Vines, Jan 29th, 2018.

Following that line of thought, it’s easy to see how Cabernet Sauvignon ticks off each box.

Cab’s ability to make high quality and age-worthy wines is legendary. It is relatively easy to grow in the vineyard and is very adaptable to a wide range of winemaking techniques. This adaptability increases the profitability of the grape as winemakers can make virtually any style of Cab to fit consumers’ tastes at prices that still meet desired profit margins.

At the Unified panel mentioned above, Evan Schiff, the winemaker for Francis Ford Coppola Presents’ Diamond line, describes how Coppola can make consistent under $13 Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from vineyards throughout California with the use of enzymes that facilitate quick fermentation, oak barrel alternatives like chips and staves (as opposed to $400-1000 new barrels) and micro-oxygenation.

Meanwhile, in Napa County where a ton of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes can cost anywhere from $6,829 to $59,375, producers seemingly have no problem selling high end Napa Valley Cabernets for several hundreds of dollars.

The reason why Cabernet Sauvignon is a fairly easy sell is because of the second point in Munsell’s advice. For consumers, it is a known quantity.

Photo by self, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as Agne27

One of the oldest plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington State at Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley.

In 2017, while off-premise sales of wine only grew by 3%, Cabernet Sauvignon out-paced that trend with 5% growth. This growth was seen across a variety of price points ranging from a 21% increase in sales of $4.50 (per 750ml) boxed wine to a 15% increase in sales of Cabernet Sauvignon over $25.

Cab is clearly King but even the reigns of Sobhuza II and Louis XIV eventually came to an end. Looking to the horizon, it is not hard to find trends that, like Macbeth’s witches, whisper of toil and trouble in store for the monarch.

Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair: Who seeks something unique and rare?

If you want to bet on the dethronement of Cab, you only need to look towards the first, second and third murderers of all things–Millennials. With over 75 million members (surpassing now the Baby Boomers), industries ignore this powerful demographic at their peril.

While it’s a mistake to overly generalize with such a large cohort, one consistent theme that has emerged is that Millennials tend to value experiences over material goods. In the wine industry, we are seeing this play out in Millennial wine drinkers’ “curiosity” about unique grape varieties and unheralded regions. Instead of seeking out the high scoring Cult Cabs and status symbols that beckoned previous generations, Millennials often thirst for something different, something interesting.

A report by Master of Wine Matt Deller notes that 65% of Millennial drinkers in his Wine Access study actively sought out “unusual wines and vintages”. And while the buying power for Millennials currently lags behind Generation X and Baby Boomers, Millennials have a desire to spend more.

With this context in mind, some interesting trends stand out when you look at the acreage reports of vineyard plantings in California.

Of course Cabernet Sauvignon still commands a significant chunk of acreage with 90,782 acres of vines in 2016. That is around a 26% increase from 2008 and is a testament to the healthy market that exists for Cabernet. But looking a little deeper we see that savvy vineyard owners and wineries are anticipating the adventurous appetites of Millennial drinkers.

How does Teroldego pair with newt eyes and frog toes?
From the California Department of Food and Agriculture and USDA 2016 acreage report

During that same 2008-2016 period, we can see impressive growth in Italian grape varieties in California like Aglianico (≈ 63% growth), Montepulciano (≈ 77%) and Primitivo (≈ 233%). Even the obscure northeastern Italian grape of Teroldego from Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol is getting in on the action with an astounding growth of nearly 731%.

The vast majority of these new Teroldego plantings occurred in 2014 & 2016 with huge producers like Bogle Vineyards, Constellation Brands, E & J Gallo Winery and Trinchero Family Estates behind most of the plantings in the Central Valley of California. It looks like the grape is being groomed to be the “new Petite Sirah” as a key component in mass-produced red blends (or a Pinot noir-enhancer) but varietal examples from producers in Clarksburg, Lodi, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara could offer consumers intriguing and characterful wines.

Beyond the second wave of Cal-Ital varieties, Cabernet is seeing growing competition from its Bordeaux stable-mates of Malbec (≈ 130% growth) and Petit Verdot (≈ 62%) as well as the Uruguayan favorite Tannat (≈ 132%).

Among white wines, we see a similar pattern even though Chardonnay still accounts for over 94,000 acres in California–an increase of around 13% from 2008.

If she was around today, it’s likely that Lady Macbeth would be drinking Moscato… or Rombauer Chard
From the California Department of Food and Agriculture and USDA 2016 acreage report

While Chardonnay still rules by Cabernet Sauvignon’s side, we have upstarts like the Spanish variety Albariño (≈ 107% growth) and Portuguese grape Verdelho (≈ 75%) seeing significant increase in plantings. As with the reds, the interest in Italian white varieties is growing with Vermentino seeing around a 287% growth in plantings and the combine stable of Muscat grapes (led by Moscato bianco) more than doubling their acreage in 8 years.

There is no question that Cabernet Sauvignon bears a charmed life. It makes delicious wines that delight both wine drinkers’ palates and wineries’ bottom lines. But the fickle and ever-changing tastes of the wine world means that even the greatest of kings have reigns that are just brief candles.

While Cab’s light is not likely to go out anytime soon, perhaps the king should watch out for his shadows.

60 Second Wine Review — Winderlea Shea Pinot noir

Some quick thoughts on the 2011 Winderlea Shea Vineyard Pinot noir.

The Geekery

Winderlea was founded by Bill Sweat and Donna Morris in the Dundee Hills in 2006. The name “Winderlea” comes from the Vermont home of the founders and means “wind in the meadow”.

The wines are made by Robert Brittan who previously spent more than 30 years in California working at blockbuster estates in Napa Valley such as Far Niente and Stags’ Leap Winery before pursuing his passion for Pinot noir up in the Willamette Valley.

According to John Winthrop Haeger’s Pacific Pinot Noir, Dick Shea got the inspiration to plant Shea Vineyard in the late 1980s from Mark Benoit, son of the owner of Chateau Benoit that is now Anne Amie Vineyards. Shea and Benoit thought that the sedimentary soils of the Yamhill-Carlton District had just as much potential to produce distinctive Pinot noirs as the volcanic red soils of the Dundee Hills.

It is now considered one of the top vineyards in all of Oregon with a very exclusive list of wineries sourcing fruit from it including Winderlea, Archery Summit, Bergström, Ken Wright, Penner-Ash and St. Innocent.

The 2011 Shea Pinot spent 10 months in French oak barrels (13% new) with around 390 cases produced.

The Wine

Medium plus intensity nose–lots of red berry, cherry and spice notes. With a little air some floral elements come out adding more layers.

Photo by Veganlover1993. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

The inviting black tea notes I find in this Winderlea Pinot noir I see often in Pinots from Yamhill-Carlton


On the palate, those cherry notes come through but the spice notes become more black tea like. Medium plus acidity gives nice juiciness to the fruit while medium tannins gives grip to the wine. The spice notes lingers for a long finish.

The Verdict

The 2011 vintage was cool but it’s a vintage that showcases a winemaker’s skill in crafting elegant and age worthy Pinots.

This 2011 Winderslea Shea is just starting to come into into its own and at around $65-75 certainly deserves its place as a top shelf Oregon Pinot from one of the Grand Cru vineyards of the state.

60 Second Wine Review — Capitain-Gagnerot Corton-Renardes

Some quick thoughts on the 2010 Maison Capitain-Gagnerot Corton-Renardes Grand Cru.

The Geekery

According to Clive Coates’ The Wines of Burgundy, the Capitains’ history in the region dates back to the 17th century. Domaine Gagnerot was established in 1802 with the Capitain family joining it in marriage in 1864.

Today it is managed by the current generation of Patrice and Michel Capitain who tend to almost 40 acres that includes not only around 0.8 acres in Corton-Renardes but also plantings in the Grand Crus of Corton-Charlemagne, Échezeaux, Clos Vougeot and the greater Corton Grand Cru. They also own the premier cru monopole of La Micaude in Ladoix-Serrigny.

Les Renardes is one of 25 climats on the hill of Corton and is considered one of the more highly regarded climats of the Grand Cru along with Clos du Roi, Les Bressandes, Les Perrières, Les Pougets and Les Grèves.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. Some red fruits but mostly earthy forest floor and savory “chicken herbs”–rosemary, thyme, marjoram and sage. It’s not quite define which herbs but smelling this wine makes me think I’m by the rotisserie at Costco.

On the palate, the wine has medium plus acidity and firm medium tannins. The acidity amplifies the red fruit flavors and gives them more precision as cherries and pomegranate. The savoriness from the nose carries through but it is still not very defined.

The climat of Les Renardes on the Aloxe-Corton side of the Grand Cru Corton.
Photo courtesy of Atlas Vins from Jacques Michot – Sepia Art & Cartographie.

The Verdict

This is a hefty and very dense Grand Cru Pinot noir that is probably in its awkward adolescence. You can tell that there is a lot of layers of complexity waiting to unfurl but it is not there yet. The hints are there, especially with the intriguing savoriness.

At around $150 for a Grand Cru from a good quality vintage, I can see this eventually living up to its price and is worth squirreling away a couple bottles in the cellar for another 5 to 10 years.

In a rut? Try these new grapes!

CC BY-SA 3.0, on Wikimedia Commons

We all get into ruts sometimes, especially during the heart of the January-February “Winter Blues” season. But ruts can be the perfect time to shake things up!

So how about trading out and swapping some of your same ole, same ole for something new? Here are 5 recommendations of geeky new grape varieties that are worth trying.

Do you like Sauvignon blanc and unoaked Chardonnay?

Try Pecorino!

According to Ian d’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy, Pecorino likely originated in the Marche region of eastern Italy where it is the dominant white grape of the Offida DOCG. The name comes from the Italian pecora for ‘sheep’ and is derived from anecdotal stories of sheepherders snacking on the grapes as they tended to their flocks. Other stores involve the sheep, themselves, breaking into vineyards to snack on the ripe grapes near harvest time.

Pecorino produces fragrant wines with citrus, apple and mineral notes that go fantastic with seafood (much like Sauvignon blanc and unoaked Chardonnay!). The wines are often light to medium body and can sometimes have delicate herbal notes (like the grassiness in a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc). Usually produced in stainless steel, some examples can see brief time in neutral oak that will add a little weight to the wine (like many Sauvignon blanc-based white Bordeauxs).

Do you like Pinot gris and dry Gewürztraminers?

Try Grüner Veltliner!

Photo taken by self as Agne27, on Wikimedia Commons

An Oregon Gruner Veltliner from the Willamette Valley.


We can also add fans of aged white Burgundies to the list too.

According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, Grüner Veltliner is the most widely planted grape variety in Austria, representing more than a third of all vineyard plantings. Here is used to produce everything from light cafe wine, to weighty ageworthy whites to sparkling Sekt.

Grüner Veltliner produces wines that have a mix of citrus and tree fruit notes (like Pinot gris) with a characteristic spicy note of white pepper (like Gewurz but a different spice). With age these wines take on a remarkable transformation with more weight and texture that is not that dissimilar to great white Burgundies.

Outside of it Austrian homeland, American wine lovers can find domestic examples being produced in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, Virginia and Maryland.

Do you like Merlot and Grenache?

Try Mencía!

Actually, you can also tally this one down if you are a fan of Pinot noir and Cabernet Franc or even Gamay because Mencía is a very versatile grape that produces different styles based how it is grown and winemaking choices.

By SanchoPanzaXXI - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, on Wikimedia Commons

Mencía grapes growing in the Ribeira Sacra DO of Spain

According to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, this very aromatic and fruit forward grape was once thought to be related to Grenache, Graciano and Cabernet Franc though DNA analysis has shown that there isn’t any relation.

But the similarities can been seen in Mencía wines that are fresh with ripe tannins and juicy fruit that can carry a tinge of herbal notes (a la Cabernet Franc). Like Gamay, some of these fruity wines are produced via carbonic maceration. However, when yields are kept low and Mencía sees some time in oak it can produce more dense, concentrated examples with ripe dark fruit and chocolate notes like Merlot.

Admittedly it is hard to know what style of Mencía you are getting with a particular bottle but the immense potential of deliciousness makes it worth exploring the whole spectrum!

Do you like Cabernet Sauvignon and spicy Zinfandels?

Try Touriga Nacional!

According to Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible, while Touriga Nacional is most known for being the backbone of Portugal’s famous fortified Port wines, it also produces some of its best table wines that demonstrate great balance and aging ability.

As a dry red varietal Touriga Nacional crafts big full bodied tannic reds with intense color and mouth-filling juicy dark fruits (very much like Cabernet Sauvignon!). Its high aromatics can also bring a variety of spice notes that carry through to the palate, lingering towards a long finish (like your spicy Zins!).

Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Bauer Karl under CC-BY-3.0

Touriga Nacional from Wines of Portugal, i. V. Marie-Luise Bächle


Outside of Portugal, you can find domestic examples of Touriga Nacional from the Zinfandel hot beds of Lodi, Amador County and the Sierra Foothills as well as in Napa Valley, Georgia and Virginia.

Do you like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah?

Try Aglianico!

In their book Vino Italiano, Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch describe young Aglianico wines as “… dark and feral, like the wolves that still roam the hills [in Basilicata].”

By Alexis Kreyder - L'Ampélographie (Viala et Vermorel), reproduced in

Aglianico from L’Ampélographie Viali i Vermorela


This grape produces big tannic wines with savory meatiness that can remind you of aged Cabernets and Rhone-style Syrahs. While it can develop even more layers of complexity with age, in its youth it still has charm and is worth seeking out by any big red wine fan.

Outside of Italy, there are domestic examples of Aglianco being produced in Paso Robles, Napa Valley, the Sierra Foothills and Amador County as well as in Texas and Virginia.

So seek out some of these obscure varieties and try something new! Life is too short to be in a rut of drinking just the same ole, same ole.

Cheers!

Champagne Masters and their Bull Shit

By Comite Champagne - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, On Wikimedia CommonsFood & Wine recently published an article by wine educator and “prophet” Jonathan Cristaldi titled “Pop These 25 Bottles and Become a Champagne Master”.

The article had so many mistakes (some glaringly obvious) that it made my head hurt.

While I wholeheartedly support any message that begins with “Pop these bottles…”, if you don’t want to look like a bloody fool to your friends, let me tell you some of things you SHOULDN’T take away from Cristaldi’s list.

1.) Veuve Clicquot did not developed techniques to control secondary fermentation and perfect the art of making Champagne. (Intro)

Oh good Lordy! At least Cristaldi later redeemed himself a bit by accurately noting that Dom Perignon spent his entire career trying to get rid of the bubbles and didn’t invent Champagne. But this is a whopper of marketing BS to start an article with.

First off, let’s give Veuve Clicquot due credit for what her and cellar master, Anton Mueller, did do. From 1810 to 1818, they developed in their cellars the technique of riddling to remove the the dead sediment of lees left over from secondary fermentation to produce clearer, brighter Champagnes. Important, yes. But even this technique wasn’t perfected at Veuve Clicquot with a cellar hand from the Champagne house of Morzet and M. Michelot perfecting the pupitre (riddling rack) that truly revolutionized Champagne production.

Further more, riddling has nothing to do with controlling secondary fermentation. It merely deals with the after-effects that happens months (usually years) after secondary fermentation was completed.

Credit for understanding the secondary fermentation that produces the bubbles in Champagne goes to Christopher Merret who delivered a paper in London in 1662 on the process of adding sugar to create gas in wines. But the process was fraught with challenges and risks. Regularly producers would lose a quarter to a third of their production due to exploding bottles because it was hard to calculate just how much sugar you needed to add to achieve the desire gas pressure in the bottle.

By Albert Edelfelt - Photograph originally posted on Flickr as Albert EDELFELT, Louis Pasteur, en 1885. Date of generation: 27 August 2009. Photographed by Ondra Havala. Modifications by the uploader: perspective corrected to fit a rectangle (the painting was possibly distorted during this operation), frame cropped out., Public Domain, on Wikimedia Commons

Pasteur’s work detailing the role of yeast in fermentation and Jean-Baptiste François’ invention to precisely measure how much sugar is in wine, contributed far more to the Champagne’s industry efforts to “control secondary fermentation” than a riddling table did.


The major breakthrough for that came in 1836 when Jean-Baptiste François, a pharmacist and optical instrument maker, invented the sucre-oenomètre that allowed producers to measure the amount of sugar in their wine. This led to the development in the 1840s of a dosage machine that could give the precise amount of sugar to each bottle to avoid explosion. These developments, followed by Louis Pasteur’s work in the 1860s on the role of yeast in fermentation, set the industry on the road to “perfecting the art of making Champagne”.

Truthfully, it was a team effort with many hands involved. Its disingenuous (and, again, marketing BS) to give exorbitant credit to anyone for making Champagne what it is today.

2.) No vintage of Krug’s Grande Cuvée is the same because it is not a vintage Champagne! (Item #2 & Item #4)

Likewise, Dom Perignon is not “a blend of several older vintage base wines”. This is one of the most glaring errors of Cristaldi that he repeats throughout the article. He doesn’t seem to truly understand the differences between vintage and non-vintage Champagnes.

A non-vintage or “multi-vintage” Champagne.
Note the lack of a vintage year on the label.

Non-vintage Champagnes, like Krug’s Grande Cuvée, are blends of multiple years that need to be aged at least 15 months. As Cristaldi correctly notes, some examples like Krug are aged far longer and can include stocks from older vintages but it, itself, is not a vintage Champagne. This is why you do not see a year on the bottle.

A vintage Champagne, such a Dom Perignon, is the product of one single year and will display that year on the bottle. By law, it needs to be aged a minimum of 36 months. You can’t “blend in” older base wines from another vintage. If you want an older base wine, you need to age the entire vintage longer.

3.) Speaking of Dom Perignon, the “6 vintages released per decade” thing hasn’t been true since the 80’s (Item #4)

Again, marketing mystique and BS.

While, yes, the concept of vintage Champagne was once sacred and reserved only for years that were truly spectacular, today it all depends on the house. Some houses, like Cristaldi notes with Salon, do still limit their vintage production to truly spectacular years. But other house will make a vintage cuvee virtually every year they can.

In the 2000s, while the 2008 hasn’t be released yet (but most assuredly will be), Dom Perignon declared 8 out of the 10 vintages. In the 1990s, they declared 7 out of 10–including the rather sub-par 1993 and 1992 vintages.

Now, as I noted in my post Dancing with Goliath and tasting of the 2004 & 2006 Dom Perignon, LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) credits global warming for producing more “vintage worthy” vintages. There is certainly some truth to that. But there is also truth in the fact that LVMH can crank out 5 million plus bottles of Dom Perignon every year if they want and have no problem selling them because of their brand name.

Seriously…. there is so much Dom being made that it is being turned into gummy bears.


And, if they don’t sell… well they can always make more gummy bears.

4.) Chardonnay grapes do not take center stage in every bottle of Henriot (Item #5)

The Henriot Blanc de Blancs is certainly awesome and worth trying. But so are their Pinot noir dominant Champagnes like the Brut Souverain and Demi-Sec (usually 60% Pinot according to Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan’s Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine) and the vintage rosé (at least 52% Pinot plus red Pinot noir wine added for color). Even Henriot’s regular vintage Champagne is usually a 50/50 blend. Again, not to discredit a great recommendation to try an awesome Champagne from a well regarded house, but it is just lazy research for a “Champagne Master” to describe Henriot as a “Chardonnay dominant” (much less exclusive) house.

If you want to talk about Chardonnay-dominant houses, look to some of the growers based around the Grand Cru villages of Avize, Cramant and le Mesnil-sur-Oger in the prime Chardonnay territory of the Côte des Blancs. Here you will find producers like Agrapart & Fils, Franck Bonville, Salon-Delamotte and Pierre Peters that, with few exceptions–such as Agrapart’s 6 grape cuvee Complantee and Delamotte’s rosé, can be rightly described as putting Chardonnay “on center stage in every bottle”.

5.) No, not all the vineyards that go into Cristal are biodynamically farmed. (Item #6)

Some great resources if you don’t want to sound like an idiot when spouting off about your “mastery” of Champagne.

In November, I got a chance to try the new 2009 Cristal with a brand ambassador from Louis Roederer. And while I noted in my post, Cristal Clarity, that Roederer’s push towards eventually converting all their vineyards to biodynamics is impressive–right now they are only around 41% biodynamic. Of course, most of this fruit does get funneled towards their top cuvee, but in 2017, that was still just 83% of their Cristal crop.

6.) No, Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagnes are not Chardonnay only wines. (Item #11)

The Comtes de Champagne is a series of prestige vintage cuvees made by Taittinger to honor Theobald IV, the Count of Champagne. This includes a scrumptious Comtes de Champagne rosé that is virtually always Pinot noir dominant.

In the 1930s, Pierre Taittinger purchased the historical home of the Comtes de Champagne in Reims. Renovating the mansion, they released the first Comtes de Champagne in 1952. Yes, that was a Blanc de blancs, but the rosé version followed soon after in 1966. While there are some vintages where only one style is released (such as only the rosé Comtes de Champagne in 2003 and the Blanc de blancs in 1998) in most vintages that are declared, both versions are released.

7.) I doubt Queen Victoria and Napoleon III time traveled to drink Perrier-Jouët’s Belle Epoque (Item #14)

By W. & D. Downey (active 1855-1940) - collectionscanadanpg.org, Public Domain, on Wikimedia Commons

With all the Champagne houses with histories of being ran by widows, it’s kind of surprising that no one has ever done a special bottling for the world’s most famous widow.

Perrier-Jouët’s first release of the Belle Epoque was in 1964.

While Cristaldi may have been trying to insinuating that those long, dead Champagne aficionados enjoyed the wines of Perrier-Jouët available during their time (which were FAR different in style than they are today), he’s dead wrong to say “Napoleon III, Queen Victoria and Princess Grace of Monaco were all fans of this gorgeous bubbly, which boasts classic white-floral notes (hence the label design), along with candied citrus and a creamy mouthfeel.”

I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, though, on Princess Grace since she didn’t pass away till 1982.

Likewise….

8.) Marie Antoinette was dead more than 40 years before Piper-Heidsieck was founded (Item #15)

Kinda hard to be a brand ambassador when you don’t have your head. (Too soon?)

Again, I suspect this is just lazy research (and/or falling for marketing BS). Taking into consideration that the picture Cristaldi uses for his recommendation of Piper-Heidsieck (founded in 1834) is actually a Champagne from Charles Heidsieck (founded in 1851), the betting money is on general laziness.

A bottle of Piper-Heidsieck, in case Jonathan Cristaldi is curious.

Now for most people I wouldn’t sweat them getting confused about the three different Champagne houses with “Heidsieck” in the name. While Champagne is nothing like Burgundy with similar names, there are some overlaps with the Heidsiecks being the most notable.

As I recounted in my recent review of the Heidsieck & Co Monopole Blue Top Champagne, the three houses (Heidsieck & Co. Monopole, Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck) trace their origins to the origin Heidsieck & Co. founded in 1785 by Florens-Louis Heidsieck.

But Piper-Heidsieck didn’t appear on the scene until 1834 when Florens-Louis’ nephew, Christian, broke away from the family firm to establish his own house. Even then, it wasn’t known as Piper-Heidsieck until 1837 when Christian’s widow married Henri-Guillaume Piper and changed the name of the estate.

Now wait! Doesn’t the label on a bottle of Piper-Heidsieck say “founded in 1785”? That’s marketing flourish as the house (like the other two Heidsieck houses) can distantly trace their origins back to the original (but now defunct) Heidsieck & Co. But Christian Heidsieck and Henri-Guillaume Piper likely weren’t even born by the time Marie Antoinette lost her head in 1793, much less convincing the ill-fated queen to drink Piper-Heidsieck with her cake.

It’s not an issue for regular wine drinkers to fall for marketing slogans. But someone who is presenting himself as a wine educator (nay a Wine Prophet) should know better.

9.) Carol Duval-Leroy is not one of the few women to lead a Champagne house (Item #21)

Beyond ignoring the important roles that women like Lily Bollinger, Louise Pommery, Marie-Louise Lanson de Nonancourt, Mathilde-Emile Laurent-Perrier and Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin (Veuve Clicquot) have played throughout the history of Champagne, it also discounts the many notable women working in Champagne today.

The De Venoge Princes Blanc de Noirs made by a pretty awesome female chef de cave, Isabelle Tellier.


Maggie Henriquez, in particular, is one of the most powerful people in Champagne in her role as CEO of Krug. Then you have Vitalie Taittinger of that notable Champagne house; Anne-Charlotte Amory, CEO of Piper-Heidsieck (and probable BFFs with Marie Antoinette’s ghost); Cecile Bonnefond, current president of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin; Nathalie Vranken, manager of Vranken-Pommery; Floriane Eznak, cellar master at Jacquart; Isabelle Tellier, cellar master at Champagne Chanoine Frères and De Venoge, etc.

Is there room for more women in leadership in the Champagne industry? Of course, especially in winemaking. But let’s not belittle the awesome gains and contributions of women in the history (and present-day) of Champagne by sweeping them under the rug of “the few”.

Though what did I expect from a man who literally uses a woman as a “table” in his profile pic on his personal website?

Is there an end to the pain? God I hope there is an end…

Though not as egregious as the glaring errors of mixing up Vintage vs Non-vintage and touting long-dead brand ambassadors, I would be amiss not to mention one last thing that upset at least one of my very good Champagne-loving friends on Facebook.

At the end of his article Cristaldi throws out two (very good) recommendations for a Californian sparkling wine from Schramsberg and a Franciacorta made in the traditional method in Italy. While I appreciate that Cristaldi does point out that these two items are technically not Champagnes, it is hard not to miss the general laziness in how he leads off his article by describing the list of wines to follow as “… some of the most iconic Champagnes out there, featuring an array of styles and price-points, so study up and become the Champagne know-it-all you’ve always wanted to be.” Again, mostly just a sin of imprecision and sloppiness.

To sum up this article, my dear Champagne-loving friend, Charles, had this to say about Jonathan Cristaldi’s article on Food & Wine.

The article is “riddled” errors. The author should be given an “ice bath” so that he can contemplate “disgorging” himself of the idea he is a master. At the very least someone should burst his “bubbles”. The article never should have made it to “press”

Now what?

I’m not going to claim to be a “Champagne Master” (though I’ll confess to being a Bubble Fiend) because frankly I don’t think that title really exists. Even Tom Stevenson and Master of Wine Essi Avellan who literally wrote one of THE books on Champagnes and sparkling wine, probably wouldn’t consider themselves “Champagne Masters”.

To celebrate the Supreme Court decision in US v Windsor that legalized gay marriage nationwide, my wife and I threw a party in honor of the 5 justices that voted for equality.

But I do think that people who put themselves in positions as wine educators or wine influencers owe it to their fellow wine lovers to provide them with good information. Encouraging people to open bottles and try new things is terrific advice. Backing that advice up with falsehoods, embellishments, conflicting and confusing statements? Not so terrific.

No one knows everything and people make mistakes. It’s human nature. Hell, I’m sure I made at least 1 mistake in this post. But 9+ errors (2 of which are basic ‘Champagne 101’ stuff) is failing the readers of Food & Wine and everyone that those readers pass this faulty information along to.

Wine drinkers deserve better from our “prophets”.

Note: A follow up to this article can be found at Thought Bubbles – How to Geek Out About Champagne

Book Reviews – Bursting Bubbles

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

Overview

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

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

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

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

Vineyards in the Grand Cru village of Mailly.


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

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

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

Some Things I Learned

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

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

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


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

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

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

Wines I Want to Try Because of This Book

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

New Reading Recommendations I Got From This Book

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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