Just a quick post today as I’ll be traveling and studying over the next few days. I’m heading to London for my Sparkling and Fortified wine exams on the 22nd. (Wish me luck!) While I might be able to sneak in a 60 Second Review, I’ll wrap up my series on the superlatives and exceptions of Champagne when I get back.
However, as part of my studies, I’ve been reviewing several of my favorite podcasts on blind tasting that I thought I’ll share. If you know of anyone having blind tasting exams coming up, this is a great list to email them.
Interpreting Wine with Lawrence Francis
I haven’t written a full review of an Interpreting Wine episode yet. But after being recommended this podcast by Noelle Harman of Outwines, I’ve been really digging it.
Francis conducted an excellent series of interviews on blind tasting sparkling and fortified wines with (now) Master of Wine Christine Marsiglio and Jim Gore of the Global Wine Academy. They are absolute “must-listen” for anyone taking WSET Diploma exams.
I did a feature on the UK Wine Show covering episode 111 with Ian D’Agata. Chris Scott is a WSET educator for Levels 1-3, so his episodes give a good idea of what examiners are looking for. While not speaking to the Diploma level, these podcasts are still a very useful review of the WSET’s systematic approach to tasting.
I’ve featured the Guildsomm podcast on a couple of Geek Notes about Champagne. For wine students, it’s truly one of the best wine podcasts you could subscribe to.
The episodes below tend to take a very technical approach. While there are notable differences between the blind tasting exams for the Court of Master Sommeliers and those of the WSET/MW programs, piecing together the underlying theory is still the same.
As I mentioned in my post on the Top 5 YouTube Videos on Sherry Wine, GuildSomm also has a YouTube channel. This is another tremendous resource which often has videos on blind tasting. I’ll share below the first part (7:05) of a great series on playing 20 questions with blind tasting.
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.
All across the globe, the wine industry is ringing in the new year with prognostications. Everyone has a crystal ball trying to nail down what the next big trends will be.
Some of these predictions bear fruit, while others are just throwing spaghetti at the wall. But in an industry where it takes vines at least three years to be productive and another 1 to 3 to get wine to the market, wineries and retailers need to be a step ahead of the trends.
The difference between success and failure in the wine industry is to be more proactive than you are reactive.
That is what makes trends and prediction articles worth reading–even if you have to take them with a grain of salt.
One recent article by Andy Young of The Shout, an online news service covering Australia, caught my eye. While written from an Aussie perspective, these predictions of Cellarmasters’ Joe Armstrong do hold intriguing relevance to the American market.
First up, Armstrong says that “Cava is the new Prosecco”.
“Our palates are getting fatigued with Prosecco’s fruit-forwardness, so Cava’s dry and biscuity characters are welcome flavours,” he said. — Andy Young, The Shout, 1/7/2019
It wasn’t so much the preference for Cava over Prosecco that surprised me. I’ve been bearish myself about the Prosecco market. I expect its bubble to soon burst as over-expansion and poor quality examples flood the market. Yet it’s not overproduction that has Armstrong and Young seeing Spanish Cava poaching Prosecco’s market share in Australia.
It’s a craving for something drier and less fruity.
Young and Armstrong also predict growth in rosé wine–particularly domestic rosé. But it is not wannabe influencers and #YesWayRosés hashtags that’s fueling its growth. Instead, domestic Aussie rosés are moving towards a style that has been a trademark of French rosé long before anyone made their first duckface on Instagram.
“Due to the popularity of French rosé, more Aussie rosés are being made in that typical, French dry and savoury style. The rise of domestic, dry rosé is a win for consumers as they are affordable and of great quality,” Armstrong said. — Andy Young, The Shout, 1/7/2019
In New World regions like Australia and the US, the association of wine and food hasn’t been as culturally ingrained as it has been in Europe. But that’s changing.
However, you don’t need to have wine with food to understand that our taste in cuisine goes hand in hand with our tastes in wine. When we craved sweet, boring dishes, we ate TV dinners and jello pops. We drank with them Blue Nun, Riunite and high alcohol reds.
Wine doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The beverage that goes into our body has to appeal to the same eyes that see our food, the same noses that perceive aromas and flavors and the same taste buds that respond to umami, sour and sweet flavors.
Wineries that cater to the tastes of the past are going find themselves left in the past. You don’t need a canary to see that American (as well as Australian) tastes are changing.
Likewise, you don’t need a crystal ball to predict what the next big wine trends will be. You just need to follow your stomach.
Champagne is the benchmark for all sparkling wine. Any wine student studying for advance certifications needs to be able to explain what makes Champagne unique. They also should be familiar with important producers–both big houses and influential growers.
While there are certainly online resources available, few things top a great reference book that can be highlighted and annotated to your heart’s content.
One of the best tips for wine students (especially on a budget) is to check out the Used Book offerings on Amazon. Often you can find great deals on wine books that are just gently used. This lets you save your extra spending money for more wine to taste.
Since the prices of used books change depending on availability, I’m listing the current best price at time of writing. However, it is often a good idea to bookmark the page of a book that you’re interested in and check periodically to see if a better price becomes available.
Here are the five most essential books on Champagne that every wine student should have.
The Christie’s encyclopedia is ground zero for understanding the basics about Champagne (production methods, styles, grape varieties, etc). But, even better, it is a launching pad for understanding the world of sparkling wine at large and seeing how Champagne fits in that framework.
While Champagne will always be a big focus of most wine exams, as my friend Noelle Harman of Outwines discovered in her prep work for Unit 5 of the WSET Diploma, you do need to have a breadth of knowledge of other sparklers.
In her recent exam, not only was she blind tasted on a Prosecco and sparkling Shiraz from Barossa but she also had to answer theory questions on Crémant de Limoux and the transfer method that was developed for German Sekt but became hugely popular in Australia & New Zealand. While there are tons of books on Champagne, I’ve yet to find another book that extensively covers these other sparkling wines as well as the Christie’s encyclopedia.
Changes in the new edition
Global warming has made England an exciting region for sparkling wine. The revised edition of Christie’s Encyclopedia has 17 page devoted to the sparklers of the British Isles.
Tom Stevenson wrote the first Christie’s Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine back in the late 1990s. That edition tallied 335 pages while the newest edition (2013) has 528 pages with more than half of those pages covering other notable sparkling wine regions like England, Franciacorta, Tasmania and more. The new edition also has a fresh perspective and feel with the addition of Champagne specialist Essi Avellan as a significant contributor.
In addition to covering the terroir and characteristics of more than 50 different regions, the Christie’s encyclopedia also includes over 1,600 producer profiles. The profiles are particularly helpful with the major Champagne houses as they go into detail about the “house style” and typical blend composition of many of their wines.
The long time scribe of the outstanding site ChampagneGuide.net, Peter Liem is the first author I’ve came across that has taken a Burgundian approach towards examining the terroirs of Champagne.
For a region that is so dominated by big Champagne houses who blend fruit from dozens (if not hundreds) of sites, it’s easy to consider terroir an afterthought. After all, isn’t Champagne all about the blend?
But Champagne does have terroir and as grower Champagnes become more available, wine lovers across the globe are now able to taste the difference in a wine made from Cramant versus a wine made from Mailly.
Several of the most delicious Champagnes I’ve had this year have came from the Côte des Bar–like this 100% Pinot blanc from Pierre Gerbais. Yet, historically, this region has always been considered the “backwoods” of Champagne and is given very little attention in wine books.
Liem’s work goes far beyond just the the terroir of the 17 Grand Cru villages but deep into the difference among the different areas of the Côte des Blancs, Montagne de Reims, the Grande Vallée, the Vallée de la Marne, Côteaux Sud d’Épernay, Côteaux du Morin, Côte de Sézanne, Vitryat, Montgueux and the Côte des Bar.
Most books on Champagne don’t even acknowledge 6 of those 10 sub-regions of Champagne!
Not only does Liem discuss these differences but he highlights the producers and vineyards that are notable in each. No other book on Champagne goes to this level of detail or shines a light quite as brightly on the various terroirs and vineyards of Champagne.
Liem’s book also comes with prints of Louis Larmat’s vineyard maps from the 1940s. While I’m a big advocate of buying used books, these maps are worth paying a little more to get a new edition. This way you are guaranteed getting the prints in good condition. I’m not kidding when I say that these maps are like a wine geek’s wet dream.
Walters believes that over the years that Champagne has lost its soul under the dominance of the big Champagne houses. While he claims that the intent of his book is not to be “an exercise in Grandes Marques bashing”, he definitely heaps a fair amount of scorn on the winemaking, viticulture and marketing practices that have elevated the Grandes Marques to their great successes.
Throughout the book he “debunks” various myths about Champagne (some of which I personally disagree with him on) as well as interviews many of influential figures of the Grower Champagne movement.
While there is value in Bursting Bubbles from a critical thinking perspective, it is in those interviews where this book becomes essential for wine students. There is no denying the importance of the Grower Champagne movement in not only changing the market but also changing the way people think about Champagne. Growers have been key drivers in getting people to think of Champagne as a wine and not just a party bottle.
Serious students of wine need to be familiar with people like Pascal Agrapart, Anselme Selosse, Francis Egly, Jérôme Prévost and Emmanuel Lassaigne. Walters not only brings you into their world but puts their work into context. While other Champagne books (like Christie’s, Peter Liem’s and David White’s) will often have profile blurbs on these producers, they don’t highlight why you need to pay attention to what these producers are doing like Bursting Bubbles does.
In wine studies, it’s so easy to get caught up in the technical details of terroir, grape varieties and winemaking that you lose sight of a fundamental truth. Wine is made by people.
Of course, the land and the climate play a role but the only way that the grape makes its way to the glass is through the hands of men and women. Their efforts, their story, marks every bottle like fingerprints. To truly understand a wine–any wine–you need to understand the people behind it.
During the height of World War I, when the vineyards and streets of Champagne were literal battlefields, the Champenois descended underground and lived in the caves that were used to aged Champagne. This photo shows a makeshift school that was set up in the caves of the Champagne house Mumm.
While there are great history books about Champagne (one of which I’ll mention next), no one has yet brought to life the people of Champagne quite as well as the Kladstrups do in Champagne.
Set against the backdrops of the many wars that have scarred the region–particularly in the 19th & 20th century–the Kladstrups share the Champenois’ perseverance over these troubles. Even when things were at their bleakest, the people of Champagne kept soldiering on, producing the wine that shares their name and heritage.
If you wonder why wine folks have a tough time taking sparkling wines like Korbel, Cook’s and Andre’s (so called California “champagnes”) seriously, read this book. I guarantee that you will never use the word Champagne “semi-generically” again.
It’s not about snobbery or marketing. It’s about respect.
David White is known for founding the blog Terroirist. He gives a great interview with Levi Dalton on the I’ll Drink To That! podcast about his motivations for writing this book. While he acknowledges that there are lots of books about Champagne out on the market, he noticed that there wasn’t one that was deep on content but still accessible like a pocket guide.
While the producer profiles in the “pocket guide” section of the book overlaps with the Christie and Liem’s books (though, yes, much more accessible) where White’s book becomes essential is with his in-depth coverage on the history of the Champagne region.
A Tour of History
A watershed moment for sparkling Champagne was in 1728 when Louis XV struck down the laws that prohibited shipping wine in bottles. Prior to this, all French wines had to be shipped in casks. Soon after, as White’s book notes, the first dedicated Champagne houses were founded with Ruinart (1729) and Chanoine Frères (1730).
The first section of the book (Champagne Through The Ages) has six chapters covering the history of the Champagne region beginning with Roman times and then the Franks to Champagne’s heritage as a still red wine. It continues on to the step-by-step evolution of Champagne as a sparkling wine. These extensively detailed chapters highlights the truth that sparkling Champagne was never truly invented. It was crafted–by many hands sculpting it piece by piece, innovation by innovation.
There are certainly other books that touch on these history details like Hugh Johnson’s Vintage: The Story of Wine (no longer in print), Kolleen M. Guy’s When Champagne Became French, Tilar J. Mazzeo’s The Widow Clicquot as well as previous books mentioned here. But they all approach Champagne’s history from different piecemeal perspectives while White’s work is a focused and chronological narrative.
I also love in his introduction how White aptly summarizes why Champagne is worth studying and worth enjoying.
“From dinner with friends to a child’s laughter or a lover’s embrace, every day has moments worth the warmth of reflection—and worthy of a toast.
Life is worth celebrating. And that’s why Champagne matters.” — David White, But First, Champagne
Cavit was first introduced to the US market in 1977 by importer David Taub of Palm Bay International. Originally known as the Cantina Viticoltori del Trentino, Taub encouraged retailers to promote the brand using an anglicized pronunciation of Ca’Vit similar to the name of television show host Dick Cavett. Within two years, Taub was importing more than half a million cases of Cavit wines.
The Lunetta is made from 100% Glera sourced from the large Prosecco DOC zone. The wine is brut in style with 10 g/l residual sugar.
There’s a mix of tropical fruit notes in this Prosecco but it’s hard to pick out what exactly they are.
Medium-minus intensity nose. A mix of peach and tropical fruits that aren’t well defined.
On the palate, the tropical fruits carry through more than the peach but still don’t define themselves. The acidity and bubbles balance the fruit and residual sugar well with this Prosecco tasting like a true brut. However, the fruit quickly fades for an exceptionally short finish.
Due to its large production, you’ll often find 187ml examples of Lunetta available at restaurants–particularly those with corporate-driven wine lists. In my experience, there is a lot of bottle variation in these 187ml splits. My best guess is that it’s probably related to how long the restaurant has been sitting on them.
While a regular 750ml bottle of Lunetta usually drinks like a decent under $10 Prosecco (though the price has been steadily creeping over the $10 mark), sometimes these 187ml splits (like this one I had at the Macaroni Grill) can be very underwhelming. Buyer beware.
Earlier this week, Wine Enthusiast announced that Constellation Brands was expanding production of Ruffino Prosecco with the purchase of 311 acres (126 hectares) of added vineyards in the Veneto & Treviso areas. Additionally, they acquired a second wine production facility with the capacity to crank out 9.2 million gallons (35,000 hectoliters) of Prosecco.
Prosecco vineyards in Guia in the Veneto
9.2 million gallons.
If they max out production that would be over 45.6 million additional bottles of Prosecco from Ruffino. Now granted, that is almost a drop in the bucket for a region that produced 475 million bottles in 2016.
But even beyond Ruffino, the Prosecco DOC zone is growing with the Consorzio di Tutela Prosecco DOC authorizing the additional planting of 3000 more hectares (7,413 acres) of vines in 2016. This coming only 7 years after the DOC region was established in 2009 with 20,250 ha (50,039 acres). This was essentially an expansion upon the original 7,191 ha (17,769 acre) Prosecco zone that is now DOCG Prosecco from Conegliano and Valdobbiadene.
That’s a lot of bubbles.
Now wait…wasn’t there a Prosecco shortage?
It certainly seemed that way earlier this spring with breathless headlines encouraging people to “Stock Up Now!” and blaming the shortage on poor yields from the 2017 vintage.
However, with each threat of shortage also came increasing pressure to raise prices with Nielsen data reporting in 2018 that the $13+ category of Prosecco saw the largest growth. Never mind that many of these $13+ Proseccos used to be closer to the $10 mark only a few years ago.
So even when the new Prosecco vineyards are fully on line, we’re likely still going to be paying more.
And for what?
Expansion vs Quality
Good quality vineyard land is a finite resource. While our knowledge and application of modern viticulture and winemaking techniques can help us maximize the potential of a parcel, there will always be a point where expansion means expanding to areas that aren’t going to produce great wine.
In 2016, more than 5.3 million cases of Prosecco were imported to the US with Shaken News Daily reporting the biggest volume coming from LaMarca and Mionetto.
This is a cycle we’ve seen repeatedly throughout history with expansion leading to eventual gluts and wine lakes. In the early 20th century, the European Union was spending around 1.3 billion euros ($1.75 billion USD) a year to encourage the uprooting of poor vineyard sites and “crisis distillation” of excess wine.
Now I’m not saying that these new Prosecco vineyards are going to need be distilled into brandy anytime soon, but I am highly skeptical that we’ll see an increase in quality to go with increase production. I can’t think of a single instance where substantial expansion of an already established wine region has resulted in an uptick of quality.
If anything, expanded production only highlights the value in protecting the original “classico” region that built a wine’s reputation in the first place–a lessons the producers of Soave, for example, took decades to figure out.
The trade off in expanded production zones is supposed to be lower prices following increased supplies on the market. You know, law of supply & demand stuff? But it never seems to work quite that neatly in the wine industry.
Lessons of Champagne
It wasn’t that long ago that the Champagne wine region was riding high and needing to expand their production zone to meet demand. In 2008, the INAO expanded the boundary to include 40 more villages and an additional 33,500 ha (82,780 acres) of vines.
Hillside vineyard in the DOCG Prosecco production zone of Valdobbiadene.
What goes up, often stays up.
Even with “gluttonous” over supply and waning demand, the best hope is usually just a mere slowing of how fast prices hike up. Each time a new bar is set with pricing, that becomes the new normal–regardless of quality.
A consumer’s best resource against these market dynamics is simply to increase their own vigilance and awareness of what they’re drinking. This means paying more attention to where your wine is coming from and how much you are being asked to pay for it.
Yes, you will likely have to pay a little bit more for a DOCG Prosecco over a DOC one but you’re already paying more for those DOC Proseccos anyways. Now you have to ask yourself if the quality level is what you’re expecting–or if its what you’ve been used to getting.
This truth goes beyond Prosecco to really every wine.
That bottle of your favorite old standby that was once such a great deal, might not be quite as good the next time because now there’s 5x more of it on the market and the winery has had to get different fruit sources to meet that number. It might not be bad. But it won’t be what it once was even though you might be paying the same amount (or more).
As consumers, we will always have choices. Sometimes it’s worth paying a little bit more for something better. Other times there will be different producers or different regions offering options that deliver just as much (or even more) pleasure for the same amount of money that you were used to spending for your old favorites.
You don’t have to settle for paying more for less quality. Though if you aren’t paying attention, that’s exactly what will happen.
The Sumarroca family originally hailed from Llimiana, in Pallars Jussà in Catalonia, but moved to the Penedès region in the 1980s when they purchased the Molí Coloma estate in Subirats.
By 1983, Bodegues Sumarroca was producing sparkling Cava. The family’s holdings expanded greatly in 1999 when they bought the Cava house of Marquis of Monistrol–gaining nearly a 1000 acres of vineyards in the prime sparkling wine terroir around the village of Sant Sadurni d’Anoia.
The Insito Cava is sometimes sold as “In Situ” in other markets (from the Latin phrase meaning “on site”) and refers to the Sumarroca’s family philosophy of only using estate grown fruit instead of supplementing with purchased fruit like many of the larger Cava houses.
Made in an Extra Brut style with less than 3 g/l sugar dosage, the wine is a blend of nearly equal amounts of Macabeu, Xarel·lo and Parellada that was aged 16 months prior to disgorging.
The winery is ISO 9001:2008 certified and practices sustainable viticulture.
High intensity nose. A mix of citrus fruit and some pastry dough toastiness. There is also a white floral element.
The combination of zesty lemon, toasty pastry dough and weighty mousse reminds me of a danish pastry.
On the palate this sparkler has a very lively mouthfeel with the zesty citrus notes becoming more defined as lemon. With the toastiness carrying through and the heavy weight of the mousse this Cava has me thinking of lemon cream cheese danishes. Impeccably well balanced for an Extra Brut, the wine is dry and citrus without being tart. The white floral notes come back for the moderate length finish but still aren’t very defined.
At around $15-18 this is an outstanding sparkling wine for folks who are craving something drier than Prosecco (and many American sparklers) but more complex than your typical Cava.
I wouldn’t use this as a “mixer bubbles”. It’s certainly worth savoring with dinner and on its own.
2017 was pretty much a rough vintage across the globe with yields hitting some of the lowest levels seen in over 50 years. The Drinks Business had a particularly eye-opening chart about just how low crop levels were in Bordeaux.
There is going to be consequences to what has been called “The worst global harvest since 1961” with the most immediate being seen in increased prices for early release wines such as sparkling Prosecco and white wines like Pinot grigio.
Now this article is written from a UK POV and for US consumers, I don’t think the situation is quite as dire. As we noted in the 3/6 edition of Geek Notes, the 2017 vintage in Washington was actually the second largest in state history. While there was some bumpiness in Oregon and California, for the most part the major wine producing areas of the US emerged from 2017 in good shape.
That said, this article is still helpful for US wine drinkers to consider because we will likely see higher prices for European wines–particularly Prosecco and Rioja–simply because there will be less supply. Especially with Prosecco’s continued and sustained popularity, sparkling wines fans are going to have to pay the piper of market demand. Now instinct would think that Cava would be the beneficiary of Prosecco consumers looking elsewhere but, like Rioja, the Cava DOs had their issues in 2017.
Via Reddit, I discovered this cool Instagram account featuring Wine Study Flashcards. There are over 150 flashcards so far, covering a variety of topics and the account looks to be fairly active with periodically adding new flashcards.
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.
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.
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.
Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan earned her Master of Wine in 2008, becoming the 4th woman in the United States to achieve such a distinction. In the introduction of Rosé Wine, she describes the difficulties in finding resources on rosé while she was studying for her MW and with rosé growing in popularity (particularly in the US), this book fills a niche.
The book is broken into 3 sections with 10 chapters. The first part, “Getting Started”, covers the basics of making and tasting rosé and concludes with Chapter 3’s presentation of Simonetti-Bryan’s 10 question Rosé Quiz. This quiz, which features questions asking about coffee habits and whether you put lemon juice on your green beans, aims to identify what style of rosé you may enjoy based on your tolerance of bitter, sweet and sour components as well as alcohol heat.
The next section of the book goes into the world of rosés with chapters 4 through 7 detailing the four broad categories of rosés–Blush wines which emphasize sweetness, Crisp wines which emphasize acidity, Fruity wines which emphasize fruit and Rich wines which emphasize body, alcohol and deep color. In each section, Simonetti-Bryan gives specific wine recommendations that exhibit these particular styles and food pairing options for them.
The last section, covering chapters 8 through 10, is titled “Resources” and includes more in-depth food pairing guidelines as well as a pronunciation guide and checklist for the wines featured throughout the book.
Some Things I Learned
I must confess that when I picked up this tiny (6.5 x 8 inch) book, I wasn’t expecting much. I mean, come on, it’s about rosé! Outside of knowing which grapes grow in which wine region that makes rosé, how much is there to really know about it?
And truthfully, it’s often easier to find rose Cava in the US than Spanish rosados.
The first eye-opener for me came on page 2 when I learned that after France, Spain is the second leading producer of rosé. Spain?!? I know they make a significant quantity of wine but I would have surely pegged the US as #2 for rosé production–especially since we drink so much of it. But then, my US-centric experience is at play when I can find dozens of American rosé examples but only a handful of Spanish rosados on restaurant wine lists and store shelves–a Muga here, a Marques De Caceres there.
In Chapter 1 on “Making Rosé”, I geeked out on the varietal characteristics of the grapes. As someone who is toiling away on the WSET Diploma level, it’s helpful to know little blind tasting hints such as looking for herbal notes like oregano in Sangiovese, the raspberry flavors in Syrah rosés and how Mencía can come across like Malbec but with more blackberry, violet and spicy flavors.
I also never realized how much co-fermentation of white and red grapes was done in rosé winemaking. Typically when you think of co-ferments, you think of notable examples like Syrah and Viognier in Côte-Rôtie and field blends. But littered throughout Rosé Wine are examples that Simonetti-Bryan highlights from regions like Vinho Verde (10 different red and white grapes can be used), Veneto (the Prosecco grape Glera with red grape varieties), Rioja (Viura and Tempranillo) and Tavel.
I was also surprised to learn that Pink Moscato is usually made with blending red wine to white Muscat blanc wine. I always thought it was made from one of the countless red skin variations of the Muscat grape.
In Chapter 2 on “Tasting Rosé”, Simonetti-Bryan’s explanation of picking up flavors via your retronasal cavity is one of the best I’ve ever came across. She asks you to think about how you can taste food that you ate hours ago when you burp and that is bloody brilliant. Gross, but brilliant and I’m totally going to steal that the next time I have to explain retronasal olfaction.
Wines I Want to Try Because of This Book
Here Simonetti-Bryan gives a smorgasbord of options with each rosé style getting 15 to 22 recommendations of specific wines to try. I found a couple dozen that excited me but I’m going to limit this list to the top 5 that interested me the most.
Domaines Ott Clos Mireille Côtes de Provence Rosé (Crisp style) – I can’t imagine myself paying nearly $50 for a rosé but Simonetti-Bryan’s description of this wine having a long slow fermentation, spending 8 to 12 months in vats, makes this very fascinating.
Domaine la Rabiotte Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence (Crisp) – At around $13, this is more in my wheel house for rosé and the description of this wine’s minerally acidity cutting through the fat of pulled pork had my mouth watering just thinking about it.
Very intrigued to explore the rosés of Tavel more
Conundrum Rosé (Crisp) – Made by the Wagner family of Caymus fame, this rosé is made from the uber geeky Valdigué grape. That right off the bat had me interested but then Simonetti-Bryan notes that the grapes are apparently “rolled” for 3 hours before pressing. Rolled? I’ve never heard of that before. By hand? By machine? In a tumbler barrel? I’m intensely curious.
Domaine Clarence Dillon Clarendelle Rosé (Fruity style) – Made by the Dillon family of Ch. Haut-Brion fame, a sub $20 Bordeaux rosé made from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc sounds delicious. I’d also like to see how the time spent aging on the lees impacts mouthfeel.
Château de Ségriès Tavel (Rich style) – Located across the Rhône river from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Tavel AOC specializes in producing deeply colored and fuller bodied rosés. I also liked Simonetti-Bryan’s tidbit that this AOC only produces around 500,000 cases a year–which she compared to Barefoot’s annual production of 17 million cases. With all the food pairing tips she gives for matching rich, robust rosés with heartier fare, I think I’ve found a way to enjoy rosés in winter.
New Reading Recommendations I Got From This Book
Unfortunately Simonetti-Bryan didn’t include an appendix of notes or reference section in Rosé Wine so I didn’t get as many recommendations for future reading materials as I have from other wine books (like Bursting Bubbles). She does name drop a few potentials in the book–including two in the Introduction as she recounts a sommelier at a Michelin-starred restaurant humorously telling a Master of Wine that “rosés are not wine”.
As I noted above, I wasn’t expecting much from this book–a quick read and maybe a takeaway or two–but I ended up burning through a highlighter. The fact that Simonetti-Bryan could jam so many usefully nuggets of info, and present it so unassumingly, is a huge testament to her skill as a teacher. Throughout reading Rosé Wine, I found myself continually surprised and presented with new ways of thinking about something.
While I initially eye-rolled at the Rosé Quiz and usually chafe at such over-simplification of people’s tastes (like I hate coffee and spicy food but love bitter dark chocolate and spicy, tannic, full-bodied reds), I was thoroughly impressed with her explanation of her methods and will have to admit that she nailed me as a Crisp rosé girl and my wife as Fruity rosé fan. While on the surface it seemed overly simple, the thinking and methodology behind it was solid.
I can see the full-bodied weight of this Counoise rosé from Washington pairing well with heavier fare.
I was also impressed with how Rosé Wine encouraged me to rethink my food pairing approach with rosés. I’m so nearsighted about matching weight to weight (light bodied rosé with lighter fare) that it was surprising for me to see Simonetti-Bryan’s recommendations of lamb with a Merlot and Malbec rosé from New Zealand, rich octopus with a Tuscan rosato and beef brisket with a Cabernet Franc rosé from Israel. None of those pairings would have been my first instinct for those dishes or wines but after reading Rosé Wine, I see how they make sense.