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Geek Notes — Five Essential Books On Champagne

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

Important Champagne books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changes in the new edition
Chapel Down wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In-depth Terroir
Pierre Gerbais Champagne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is indeed and, yes, it does.

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Geek Notes — Insider’s Peek Into Champagne

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

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

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

Notes From The Wines of Champagne

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

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

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

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

Grand Cru and Growers
 Jean Fannière Grand Cru Champagne

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s kind of the point.

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

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

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

Sparkling Wine Making From the Wine & Spirit Education Trust

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

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

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

My Notes From Sparkling Wine Making

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Into The Nitty-Gritty

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

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

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

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

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