Tag Archives: Veuve Clicquot

Playing the Somm Game in Vegas

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

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

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

But man does it suck losing.

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

How to Play

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

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

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

Why the Somm Game works

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Ego Tax”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Somm Game in Action

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

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

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

Then I sit back and have fun.

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

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

Lago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Folks….this is a WHITE wine!


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

A stunning treat and life-long memory.

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

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

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

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

Aureole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A seriously good sweet wine worth geeking out over.

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

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

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

But Advance Sommeliers do not settle for serviceable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wine….they just kept coming!

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

And coming…..
Like a hot slot machine.


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

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

That is the beauty of the Somm Game.

Yes, it’s still gambling

And the house is going to get its share.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who makes your Supermarket Wine? (A Running List)


Beverage Dynamics released their report this month of The Fastest Growing Wine Brands and Top Trends of 2017.

One of the most glaring features of the report is how often you see the names Constellation Brands, E & J Gallo, The Wine Group and more appear in the rankings with their multitude of different brands. As I described in my post The Facade of Choice, when you walk the wine department of your typical grocery store the vast majority of the wines you see are going to be made by the same handful of companies.

It’s important for consumers to be aware of just how artificially limited their choices really are–especially because consumers should have choices when there are over 4000 wineries in California, over 700 each in Washington and Oregon and tens of thousands more across the globe.

Yet the average wine drinker is only ever going to see a fraction of a percent of these wines–especially those of us in the US. This is not just because our archaic three-tier distribution system severely limits consumers’ access to wine but also because of the wave of consolidations among large wine distributors.

For the sake of efficiency (and profits) these large distributors tend to focus on the big clients in their portfolios–the Constellations and the Gallos. They can back up a trailer to a warehouse and load in pallets of “different wines” with different labels from all across the globe and then take that trailer right to the major grocery chains. With about 42% of the “off premise” wine (as opposed to on-premise restaurant purchases) in the US being bought at supermarkets, every consumer should take a hard look at how limited their options really are.

In some cases, you have more true options in the yogurt section than you do in the wine department.

For a couple years now I’ve been keeping an Excel spreadsheet of the various brands I’ve came across and which mega-corporation they’re made by. This is FAR from an exhaustive list and has room for a lot of expansion. Plus with the way that winery brands get bought and sold almost like trading cards it will probably be outdated by the time I hit publish. If you know of any additions or errors, please post in the comments.

Note some of the names are linked to the companies by exclusive distribution agreements.

Constellation Brands
7 Moons
Alice White
Arbor Mist
Black Box
Blackstone
Charles Smith Wines
Clos du Bois
Cooks
Cooper & Thief
Diseno
Dreaming Tree
Drylands
Estancia
Franciscian Estate
Hogue
Inniskillian
J. Roget
Jackson Triggs
Kim Crawford
Manischewitz
Mark West
Meiomi
Robert Mondavi
Monkey Bay
Mount Veeder
Naked Grape
Night Harvest
Nk’Mip
Nobilo
Paso Creek
Paul Masson
Prisoner
Primal Roots
Ravenswood
Red Guitar
Rex Goliath
Rioja Vega
Ruffino
Schrader
Simi
Simply Naked
Taylor Dessert
Thorny Rose
Toasted Head
The Prisoner
Vendange
Wild Horse
Woodbridge

E & J Gallo

Alamos
Allegrini
Andre
Apothic
Ballatore
Barefoot
Bella Sera
Bodega Elena de Mendoza
Boone’s Farm
Bran Caia
Bridlewood
Carlo Rossi
Carnivor
Chocolate Rouge
Clarendon Hills
Columbia Winery
Covey Run
Dancing Bull
DaVinci
Dark Horse
Don Miguel Gascon
Ecco Domani
Edna Valley Vineyard
Fairbanks
Frei Brothers
Gallo of Sonoma
Ghost Pines
J Vineyards
La Marca
Laguna
Las Rocas
Liberty Creek
Livingston Cellars
Louis Martini
MacMurray Ranch
Madria Sangria
Martin Codax
Maso Canali
McWilliams
Mia Dolcea
Mirassou
Orin Swift
Peter Vella
Pieropan
Polka Dot
Prophecy
Rancho Zabaco
Red Bicyclette
Red Rock
Redwood Creek
Sheffield Cellars
Starborough
Souverain
Talbott
The Naked Grape
Tisdale
Winking Owl
Turning Leaf
Vin Vault
Whitehaven
Wild Vines
William Hill Estate

Brown-Foreman

Sonoma Cutrer
Korbel Sparkling wine

Delicato Family Vineyards

Black Stallion
Bota Box
Brazin
Diora
Domino
Gnarly Head
Irony
Night Owl
Noble Vines
Twisted Wines
Z. Alexander Brown

Terlato Wines

Boutari
Bodega Tamari
Chimney Rock
Domaine Tournon
Ernie Els Wines
Federalist
Hanna
Josmeyer
Il Poggione
Luke Donald
Markham
Mischief & Mayhem
Rochioli
Rutherford Hill
Santa Margherita
Seven Daughters
Sokol Blosser
Tangley Oaks

Precept Brands

Alder Ridge
Browne Family
Canoe Ridge Vineyard
Cavatappi
Chocolate Shop
Gruet
House Wine
Pendulum
Primarius
Red Knot
Ross Andrews
Sagelands
Sawtooth
Shingleback
Ste. Chappelle
Waitsburg Cellars
Washington Hills
Waterbrook
Wild Meadows
Willow Crest

Vintage Wine Estates

B.R. Cohn
Buried Cane
Cameron Hughes
Cartlidge & Browne
Cherry Pie
Clayhouse Wines
Clos Pegase
Cosentino Winery
Cowgirl Sisterhood
Delectus Winery
Firesteed
Game of Thrones
Girard
Girl & Dragon
Gouguenheim
Horseplay
If You See Kay
Layer Cake
Middle Sister
Monogamy
Promisqous
Purple Cowboy
Sonoma Coast Vineyards
Swanson
Windsor
Wine Sisterhood

Ste Michelle Wine Estates

14 Hands
Chateau Ste Michelle
Col Solare
Columbia Crest
Conn Creek
Erath
Merf
Northstar
O Wines
Patz & Hall
Red Diamond
Seven Falls
Snoqualmie
Spring Valley Vineyard
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
Stimson
Tenet/Pundit wines
Vila Mt. Eden
Villa Maria

Crimson Wine Group

Archery Summit
Chamisal
Double Canyon
Forefront
Pine Ridge
Seghesio
Seven Hills Winery

Jackson Family Estates

Arrowood
Arcanum
Byron
Cambria
Cardinale
Carmel Road
Copain
Edmeades
Freemark Abbey
Gran Moraine
Hickinbotham
Kendall Jackson
La Crema
La Jota
Lokoya
Matanzas Creek
Mt. Brave
Murphy-Goode
Penner-Ash
Siduri
Silver Palm
Stonestreet
Tenuta di Arceno
Yangarra Estate
Zena Crown
Wild Ridge

Vina Concha y Toro

Almaviva
Bonterra
Casillero del Diablo
Concha y Toro
Cono Sur
Don Melchior
Fetzer
Five Rivers
Jekel
Little Black Dress
Trivento

The Wine Group

13 Celsius
Almaden
AVA Grace
Benzinger
Big House
Chloe
Concannon
Corbett Canyon
Cupcake
Fish Eye
FlipFlop
Foxhorn
Franzia
Glen Ellen
Herding Cats
Insurrection
Love Noir
Mogen David
Slow Press
Pinot Evil
Stave & Steel

Treasury Wine Estates

19 Crimes
Acacia
Beaulieu Vineyards
Beringer
Butterfly Kiss
BV Coastal
Cellar 8
Ch. St Jean
Chalone
Colores del Sol
Crème de Lys
Dynamite Vineyards
Etude
Gabbiano
Greg Norman
Hewitt Vineyard
Lindeman
Matua
Meridian
New Harbor
Once Upon a Vine
Penfolds
Provenance
Rosemount
Rosenblum Cellars
Seaview
Sledgehammer
Snap Dragon
Souverain
St. Clement
Stags’ Leap Winery
Stark Raving
Sterling
The Walking Dead
Uppercut
Wolf Blass
Wynns Coonawarra

Bronco Wine Company

Black Opal
Carmenet
Cellar Four 79
Century Cellars
Charles Shaw
Crane Lake
Colores del Sol
Estrella
Forest Glen
Forestville
Gravel Bar
Great American Wine Co.
Hacienda
Little Penguin
Montpellier
Quail Ridge
Rare Earth
Robert Hall
Sea Ridge
Stone Cellars

(LVMH) Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey

Bodega Numanthia
Cheval Blanc
Cheval de Andes
Cloudy Bay
Dom Perignon
Domaine Chandon
D’yquem
Krug
Mercier
Moet & Chandon
Newton Vineyard
Ruinart
Terrazas de Los Andes
Veuve Clicquot

Trinchero Estates

Bandit
Charles & Charles
Dona Paula
Duck Commander
Fancy Pants
Folie a Deux
Fre
Joel Gott
Los Cardos
Menage a Trois
Montevina
Napa Cellars
Newman’s Own
Pomelo
SeaGlass
Sutter Home
Sycamore Lane
The SHOW

Deutsch Family Brands

Cave de Lugny
Clos de los Siete
Enza
Eppa
Fleurs de Praire
Hob Nob
Joseph Carr
Josh Cellars
Kunde Family
Peter Lehmann
Ramon Bilbao
Ruta 22
Skyfall
The Calling
The Crossing
Villa Pozzi

Guarachi Wine Partners

Black Ink
Castillo de Monseran
Guarachi
Kaiken
Nobilissima
Santa Ema
Surf-Swim
Tensley
Tenshen

Foley Family Wines

Acrobat
Awatere Pass
Butterfield Station
Chalk Hill Winery
Chalone Vineyard
Clifford Bay
Dashwood
EOS
Firestone
Foley Johnson
Four Sisters
Goldwater
Guenoc
Lancaster Estate
Lincourt
Lucien Albrecht
Merus
Nieto Senetiner
Pebble Row
Pepperwood Grove
Piccini
Poizin
Roth
Sebastini
Smoking Loon
Tahbilk
The Four Graces
Three Rivers Winery
Wayne Gretzky

Pernod Ricard

Brancott
Campo Viejo
Graffigna
Jacob’s Creek
Kenwood
Stoneliegh
George Wyndham

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60 Second Wine Reviews — Ruinart Brut

A few quick thoughts on the NV Ruinart Brut Champagne.

The Geekery

While I love geeking out over grower Champagnes, I must confess to having a softspot for Ruinart. While frequently lost in the LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) portfolio of mega-brands like Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Dom Perignon, the quality of this house has always been top-notch.

I reviewed the Ruinart Blanc de Blancs and Rosé over a year ago in my post A Toast to Joy and Pain where I give some background about the house and also note the apt description by the LVMH Brand Ambassador that Ruinart is the “best prestige house that most people haven’t heard of.”

Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan note in Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine that Nicolas Ruinart, who founded the estate in 1729, was the nephew of Dom Thierry Ruinart who was a close friend of Dom Perignon.

The Ruinart Brut (also known as ‘R’ de Ruinart) is a blend of 49% Pinot noir, 40% Chardonnay and 11% Pinot Meunier. The wine usually includes 20-25% reserve wines from older vintages. It is aged for around 36 months before being bottled with a dosage of 9 g/l.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. Noticeable toasty bread dough with baked pears and almond shavings. This wine smells like you are in a French bakery.

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

This Champagne smells like you are walking into a French bakery.


On the palate those pear and doughy notes come through but also bring a spice element of cinnamon and allspice. Very weighty and mouth-filling with a silky mousse. This Champagne feels like a meal in itself. Well balanced with the dosage though I wished it was tad drier. An intriguing white floral element emerges on the long finish to go with the lingering toastiness.

The Verdict

While not quite to the level of Ruinart’s Blanc de Blancs and Rosé, this is still a phenomenally well made Champagne.

At around $55-65, it is a bit of a bump from your basic Champagnes like Veuve and Moët but the quality jump is significant.

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Thought Bubbles – How to Geek Out About Champagne

By Joseph Faverot - [1], Public Domain, on Wikimedia CommonsLast week I got into a bit of a tizzy over some ridiculous things posted by a so-called “Wine Prophet” on how to become a “Champagne Master”. See Champagne Masters and their Bull Shit for all the fun and giggles.

But despite the many failings of Jonathan Cristaldi’s post, he did dish out one very solid piece of advice–to learn more about Champagne, you have to start by popping bottles. I want to expand on that and offer a few tidbits for budding Champagne geeks.

I’m not going to promise to make you a “Champagne Master”–because that is a lifelong pursuit–but I will promise not to steer you towards looking like a buffoon regurgitating nonsense about Marie Antoinette pimping for a Champagne house that wasn’t founded till 40+ years after her death.

Deal? Alright, let’s have some fun.

1.) Start Popping Bottles!

Pretty much you can stop reading now. I’m serious. Just go try something, anything. Better still if it is something you haven’t had or even heard of before. Pop it open and see what you think.

They say it takes 10,000 hours to master anything so take that as a personal challenge to start getting your drink on. Well actually that 10,000 hour thing has been debunked but mama didn’t raise a quitter.

Though seriously, if you want to make your tasting exploration more fruitful, here are some tips.

Make friends with your local wine shop folks

On Wikimedia Commons under PD-US from United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsca.05590.

Online retailers can be helpful as well but sometimes it’s good to have a face to put with a bottle.


They pretty much live and breath the wines they stock. They know their inventory and you can usually tell when they have a passion to share their love of wine with people. Admittedly not every shop is great but go in, look around, ask questions and see if you find a good fit. Finding a great local wine shop with folks whose opinions you trust is worth its weight in gold for a wine lover. Once you’ve found that, the door is open for you to be pointed towards a lot of fantastic bottles that will only enrich your explorations.

Learn the differences between négociant houses, grower producers and co-operatives

In Champagne, you can often find on the label a long number with abbreviations that denote what type of producer made the Champagne.

NMnégociant manipulant, who buy fruit (or even pre-made wine) from growers. These are the big houses (like the LVMH stable of Moët & Chandon & Veuve Clicquot) that make nearly 80% of all Champagne produced. These Champagnes aren’t bad at all. Most are rather outstanding.

But the key to know is that while there are around 19,000 growers, the Champagne market is thoroughly dominated by several large négociant houses. Chances are if you go into a store (especially a grocery store or Costco), these wines are likely going to be your only options. You should certainly try these wines but you may have to do some leg work to find the whole wide world of Champagne that exists beyond the big names. This is a big reason why making friends at the local wine shop (who often stock smaller producers) is a great idea.

RMrécoltant manipulant, who make wine only from their own estate fruit. These are your “Grower Champagnes” and while being a small producer, alone, is not a guarantee of quality, exploring the wines of small producers is like checking out the small mom & pop restaurants in a city instead of only eating at the big chain restaurants. You can find a lot of gems among the little guys who toil in obscurity.

CMcoopérative-manipulant, who pool together the resources of a group of growers under one brand. This is kind of the middle ground between true Grower Champagne and the big négociant houses. Some of these co-ops are small and based around a single village (like Champagne Mailly) while others cover the entire region (like Nicolas Feuillatte which includes 5000 growers and is one of the top producers in Champagne). Some of these are easier to find than others but they are still worth exploring so you can learn about the larger picture of Champagne.

An example of a négociant (NM on left) and grower (RM on right) label.

Pay attention to sweetness and house style

While “Brut” is going to be the most common sweetness level you see, no two bottles of Brut are going to be the same. That is because a bottle of Brut can have anywhere from Zero to up to 12 grams per liter of sugar. 12 grams is essentially 3 cubes of sugar. Then, almost counter-intuitively, wines labeled as “Extra Dry” are going to actually be a little sweeter than Brut. (It’s a long story)

By  Kici, Released on Wikimedia Commons under public domain

Though to be fair, if they served Champagne at McDonald’s, I would probably eat there more often. It is one of the best pairings with french fries.


This is important to note because while Champagne houses often won’t tell you the dosage (amount of sugar added at bottling) of their Bruts, with enough tasting you can start to discern the general “house style” of a brand.

For instance, the notable Veuve Clicquot “Yellow Label” is tailor-made for the sweet tooth US market and will always be on the “sweeter side of Brut” (9-12 g/l). While houses such as Billecart-Salmon usually go for a drier style with dosages of 7 g/l or less. If you have these two wines side by side (and particularly focus on the tip of your tongue) you will notice the difference in sweetness and house style.

The idea of house style (which is best exhibited in each brand’s non-vintage cuvee) is for the consumer to get a consistent experience with every bottle. It’s the same goal of McDonald’s to have every Big Mac taste the same no matter where you are or when you buy it. All the major négociant houses have a trade mark style and some will be more to your taste than others.

Explore the Grand Crus and vineyard designated bottles

While Champagne is not quite like Burgundy with the focus on terroir and the idea that different plots of land exhibit different personalities, the region is still home to an abundance of unique vineyards and terroir. These are best explored through bottles made from single designated vineyards but these can be expensive and exceedingly hard to find.

Quite a bit easier to find (especially at a good wine shop) are Grand Cru Champagnes that are made exclusively from the fruit of 17 particular villages. There are over 300 villages in Champagne but over time the vineyards of these 17 villages showed themselves to produce the highest quality and most consistent wines. All the top prestige cuvees in Champagne prominently feature fruit from these villages.

To be labeled as a Grand Cru, the Champagne has to be 100% sourced only from a Grand Cru village. It could be a blend of multiple Grand Cru villages but if a single village is featured on the front of the label (like Bouzy, Mailly, Avize, Ambonnay, etc) then it has to be exclusively from that village. Since the production of the Grand Cru villages represent less than 10% of all the grapes grown in Champagne, you would expect them to be fairly pricey. That’s not the case. Many small growers have inherited their Grand Cru vineyards through generations of their families and are able to produce 100% Grand Cru Champagnes for the same price as your basic Champagnes from the big négociant house.

They may be a little harder to find than the big négociant houses, but Grand Cru Champagnes from producers like Pierre Peters, Franck Bonville, Pierre Moncuitt, Petrois-Moriset, Pierre Paillard and more can be had in the $40-60 range.

While not as terroir-driven as single vineyard wines, tasting some of the single-village Grand Crus offers a tremendous opportunity to learn about the unique personality of different villages in Champagne and is well worth the time of any Champagne lover to explore.

2.) Great Reading Resources

Truthfully, you can just follow the advice of the first step and live a life of happy, bubbly contentment. You don’t need book knowledge to enjoy Champagne–just an explorer’s soul and willingness to try something new. But when you really want to geek out and expand your knowledge, it is helpful to have solid and reliable resources. There are tons of great wine books dealing with Champagne and sparkling wine but a few of my favorites include:

A few favs

Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan’s Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine — The benchmark reference book written by the foremost authorities on all things that sparkle.

Peter Leim’s Champagne [Boxed Book & Map Set] — This set ramps up the geek factor and dives deeper into the nitty gritty details of Champagne. The companion maps that shows vineyards and crus of the region are enough to make any Bubble Head squeal.

David White’s But First, Champagne — A very fresh and modern approach to learning about Champagne. It essentially takes the Christie’s Encyclopedia and Peter Liem’s opus and boils it down to a more digestible compendium.

Robert Walter’s Bursting Bubbles — Thought provoking and a different perspective. You can read my full review of the book here.

Ed McCarthy’s Champagne for Dummies — A little outdated but a quick read that covers the basics very well. I suspect that if the “Wine Prophet” read this book, he wouldn’t have had as much difficulties understanding the differences between vintage and non-vintage Champagnes.

Don & Petie Kladstrup’s Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times — One of my favorite books, period. Brilliantly written work of historical non-fiction about the people who made Champagne, Champagne. If you ever wondered what was the big deal about people calling everything that has bubbles “champagne”, read this book about what the Champenois endured throughout their history and you will have newfound respect for what the word “Champagne” means.

3.) Next Level Geekery

As I said in the intro, the pursuit of Champagne Mastery is a lifelong passion and you never stop learning. Beyond the advice given above, some avenues for even more in-depth exploration includes:

The Wine Scholar Guild Champagne Master-Level course — I’ve taken the WSG Bordeaux and Burgundy Master courses and can’t rave enough about the online programs they have. Taught by Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine, the level of instruction and attention to detail is top notch. They also offer immersion tours to the region.

Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages — This Master of Wine is one of the most reliable sources for information and tasting notes on all kinds of wine but particularly for Champagne.

Allen Meadow’s Burghound — While Burgundy is Meadow’s particular focus, he does devote a lot of time reviewing and commenting on Champagne and, like Robinson, is a very reliable source. But the caveat for all critics is to view them as tools, rather than pontiffs.

Visit Wineries

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

If you get a chance to riddle, it will be really fun for the first couple of minutes. Then you realize how hard of a job it is.


Even if you can’t visit Champagne itself, chances are you are probably near some producer, somewhere who is making sparkling wine.

All throughout the world there are producers making bubbly from African wineries in Morocco, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa; Asian wineries in China and India; to more well known sparkling wine producing countries in Australia, Argentina, Chile, United Kingdom and Eastern Europe.

In the United States, there is not only a vibrant sparkling wine industry in the traditional west coast regions of California, Oregon (Beaver State Bubbly) and Washington State but also New Mexico, Missouri, New York, Virginia, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Georgia, Colorado and more.

While they may not be making wine in the “traditional method”, there is still benefit to visiting and tasting at these estates. Especially at small wineries where the person pouring could be the owner or winemaker themselves, these experiences can give you an opportunity to peak behind the curtain and see the work that happens in the vineyard and winery. As wonderful of a resource that books and classes can provide, there really is no substitute for first hand experience.

So have fun and keep exploring!

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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

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60 Second Wine Reviews – Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top

Some quick thoughts on the Heidsieck & Co Monopole ‘Blue Top’ NV Brut.

The Geekery

Heidsieck & Co is one of three Heidsieck brands of Champagne that can trace its origins to the 18th century German trader Florens-Louis Heidsieck. Founded in 1785, disagreements among Heidsieck’s heirs lead Christian Heidsieck, Florens-Louis’ nephew, to break away to start his own company in 1834 that eventually became Piper-Heidsieck. A little later, Charles Camille Heidsieck, a great-nephew of Florens-Louis, started Champagne Charles Heidsieck in 1851.

Heidsieck & Co Monopole changed ownership numerous times throughout the years. Today it is owned by Vranken-Pommery as part of a portfolio of brands that include Champagne Vranken, Champagne Pommery and Champagne Charles Lafitte.

Despite having “Monopole” in its name, Heidsieck is a négociant brand sourcing its grapes from the 34,000 hectares of shared Vranken-Pommery vineyards with an additional 2000 hectares of contract grapes.

According to Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine, the NV Blue Top Brut is usually a blend of 70% Pinot noir, 20% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Meunier. I could not find information on dosage or time spent aging on the lees.

The Wine

Photo from Wikimedia commons by Xocolatl. Released under CC BY-SA 4.0

A fair amount of apple strudel notes going on with this Champagne. But rather than a freshly baked strudel, it taste more like a Pillsbury toaster strudel.

Medium intensity nose. Lots of tree fruits like fresh cut apples and white peach. There is a little pastry toast but its subtle like a Pillsbury toaster strudel.

On the palate, it’s noticeably sweet so it’s probably has 11-12 g/l dosage. The apple notes come through the most, tasting like very ripe honey crisp apples. Creamy mouthfeel with some lingering floral notes on the finish that add a little bit of complexity.

The Verdict

A pleasant and easy drinking Champagne that’s essentially a less toasty version of Veuve Clicquot. Considering that the Heidsieck & Co Monopole ‘Blue Top’ NV Brut is in the $33-37 range while the Veuve Yellow Label is usually in the $42-50 range, the Blue Top is an undoubtedly better value.

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Dancing with Goliath


“You buy the big houses for the name, you buy the growers for the wine.”

In my post Cristal Clarity, I featured the quote above while discussing the dichotomy in the world of Champagne between the mega-corp négociant houses and the small grower producers. As I sat down for dinner at Daniel’s Broiler in Bellevue for their 10th Annual Champagne Gala, that quote began ringing in my ears from the moment the staff handed me my “long neck” of Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial.

For the second straight year, Daniel’s Broiler partnered with LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) for their annual gala. From listening to other attendees, a few years ago the gala was also LVMH-centric with the wines of Veuve Clicquot featured and it sounds like the very first Champagne Gala at Daniel’s was also based around Moët & Chandon.

It seems that LVMH dominants the attention of Daniel’s wine team as much as it dominants the global Champagne market.

Passed hors d’oeuvres paired with Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial “long necks”
Treasure cove oysters with salmon roe, chili, ginger and chives. Crostinis with brown-butter scallions, wild mushrooms and ricotta.

This….was an interesting experience. I know the use of Champagne flutes is going out of fashion but being told that this was the “hot new trend” in drinking bubbles struck myself (and I suspect most of the room) as quite odd.

Trying to “smell” the long neck Moët & Chandon


The Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial is a non-vintage blend made up of more than 100 different wines with 20-30% being “reserve wines” from older vintages. The blend varies from batch to batch and will usually have 30-40% Pinot noir, 30-40% Pinot Meunier and 20-30% Chardonnay. I was quite surprised to learn from the LVMH brand ambassador, Coventry Fallows, that the dosage for the Brut Imperial has been lowered over the years to 9 g/l. That is still on the “sweeter side” of Brut but it is an improvement over the 12 g/l that skirted the line between Brut and Extra Dry and a huge change from the 20 g/l dosage of their White Star label that was once a staple on the US market but has since been discontinued.

I think Garth Brooks sang a song about this.


While we were sipping our long necks and pairing them with the oysters and wild mushroom crostini, it was hard not to notice how utterly nondescript and indistinct the Brut Imperial was. It could have been a Cava, a Crémant or a Prosecco and no one would’ve fluttered an eye. It could have even been a sparkling wine in a can and still deliver the same neutral experience.

I asked my table mates if, instead of the Moët, they were sipping the Coppola Sofia California sparkler, would they have noticed a difference? Everyone said no which I think is a big crux for Moët and why this marketing gimmick is missing the mark. The Brut Imperial Champagne, itself, is nothing spectacular and memorable and it kind of feels like LVMH is getting bored with the brand that they crank out around 30 million bottles a year of.

Is the message that LVMH truly wants to send with these “long neck Moëts” is that Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial is the Bud Light of the Champagne world?

I wonder if this will fit into a bottle of Bud Light?


First utilized by Moët for the 2015 Golden Globes, it appears that LVMH is trying their darnedest to make “fetch happen” with sipper tops on 187 ml splits. As a hugely successful multinational conglomerate, LVMH’s branding is closely associated with luxury (with many of their Champagnes like Veuve Clicquot and Moët & Chandon needing that association as part of their branding) which makes it a bit humorous that they’re marketing their wine by making you feel like you’re drinking a beer.

But hey… it’s Champagne! And its gold colored so you’re being both chic and avant-garde at the same time! There’s that, I guess.

If you want to indulge in your inner Coachella hipster, you can purchase your own Moët sipper top on Amazon and, of course, can find Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial at virtually any wine shop, grocery store or gas station.

However, considering that you can get four 187 ml Sofia cans for the same price as one Moët Brut Imperial split (minus the $8 “long neck adapter”) and still have the same amount of care-free fun drinking your bubbles like beer, I think I’m going to pass. I’ve always been more of a SXSW girl anyways.

Seated hors d’oeuvre paired with Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut 2008
Seared scallops and prawns with tangerine-saffron cream, fresh herbs and vol-au-vent.

The highlight of the event was the expertise offered by LVMH Brand Ambassador Coventry Fallows who was a wealth of knowledge and is very skilled at presenting the wines she represents. It was unfortunate, however, that rather than give her more time to offer more in-depth and detailed information about each wine to the group as a whole, her presentation was shorten for each wine to just a few moments with her working the room, going from table to table with the overall noise of surrounding tables drowning out her answers to the various questions presented.


But, from the little bit that I was able to gleam from her in those brief moments, I learned that the general philosophy of Moët & Chandon is that “Bigger is Better” and that, in addition to being a significant négociant buyer of fruit, they are also the largest vineyard owner in Champagne and are constantly seeking out more quality land to add to their holdings. This is encouraging because as we discovered with the wines of Roederer, the more direct house control of the process from grape to glass, the more likely you are to get a high quality and character driven product.

With those thoughts in mind, I was eager to try the 2008 Vintage Brut which represents only around 5% of the house’s production and is made entirely from estate-owned fruit.

The 2008 Moët & Chandon Brut is a blend of 40% Chardonnay, 37% Pinot noir and 23% Pinot Meunier. It was aged 7 years on the lees before being bottled with a dosage of 5 g/l that is the lowest among the entire Moët line. Much of the fruit sourced for the wine comes from Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards that have been declassified from the Dom Perignon range.

The wine had medium minus intensity on the nose with some candied hazelnut and spice pear notes. On the palate, the pear seemed to go away and was replaced by more appley-notes while the candied hazelnuts become more pastry dough–like a nut-filled apple strudel. The finish was quite short.

And the Vintage Brut is a huge step up from drinking beer.


The mouthfeel was the star with smooth, silky bubbles that showed great balance between the acidity and the low dosage. The reason why so many Champagnes veer towards the “sweeter side of Brut” is because sugar is the magic pill when it comes to insuring a smooth and velvety soft mouthfeel that is so desirable–especially for the American market. It takes high quality fruit and skilled winemaking to accomplish similar results without the crutch of sugar so I will certainly give Moët’s chef de cave Benoit Gouez his due credit for his craftsmanship and balance with this Champagne.

However, there are plenty of well crafted and well balanced Champagnes (including many 100% Grand Crus) that can be found for around $40-55, far less than the $65-70 that the Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut usually commands. On the other hand, as a “baby Dom”, it actually is a better value when compared to spending $130-150 for some of the less-exciting vintages of Dom Perignon. (More on that below)

For me, the food provided by Daniel’s head chef Kevin Rohr was far more exciting with the scallops being perfectly pan-seared and fresh. The tangerine-saffron cream added a delightful twist of flavor that seemed both light and rich. The prawns were more hit and miss with half the table having no issue but the other half describing a “chlorine” and overly fishy taste to them that suggest there may have been some bad ones in the batch.

Salad paired with Moët & Chandon Rosé Impérial
Crisped duck breast with butter lettuce, Laura Chenel’s chèvre, pink peppercorns and pomegranate glacé.

Another tidbit from Ms. Fellows was that the house style of Moët is that of “Freshness and Crispness”. Perhaps no other wine showcased that emphasis more than the Rosé Impérial.


The Rosé Impérial is a non-vintage blend like the Brut Imperial with the percentage of grapes in the blend varying from batch to batch. The blend is usually around 40-50% Pinot noir, 30-40% Pinot Meunier and 10-20% Chardonnay with the rose coloring come from the addition of 20% blend of red Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier wine. Like the Brut Imperial, the dosage is 9 g/l with around 20-30% of reserve wine to help insure consistency.

The wine had a medium-plus intensity nose with cherry aromas and fresh red apple peels. Outside of the 2004 Dom Perignon, it had the best nose of the night. The palate carried that lively freshness through with the apple peel being the strongest note but with some strawberry notes joining the cherry on the finish. The one major slight, which was an unfortunate shared trait among all the wines of the evening, was the incredibly short finish that completely disappears mere moments after swallowing.

At around $50-55, you are still paying a premium for it being a rosé (and the Moët name) but, in hindsight of the evening, the Rosé Impérial is one of the better values in the entire Moët portfolio.

Again, the food was excellent with the pairing enhancing the wine. The pomegranate glacé with pink peppercorns were immensely charming and complimented the sense of freshness of the rosé with the tanginess of the chèvre cheese adding some length to the short finish of the wine. Even though it was certainly not “crispy” by any definition, the duck was beautifully cooked and juicy.

Entrée paired with 2004 and 2006 vintages of Dom Pérignon
USDA Prime beef tenderloin with butter-poached North Atlantic lobster tail, green risotto and Béarnaise sauce.

While technically part of Moët & Chandon, LVMH prefers for people to think of Dom Perignon as its own house and entity. Indeed, its production is distinct from the rest of the Moët lineup with its own chef de cave, Richard Geoffroy, overseeing production. Like the man himself, the wine has been the subject of many myths and breathless soliloquies.

Some of the hype is richly deserved with many bottles of Dom Perignon being ranked as some of the greatest wines ever made.

For myself, personally, the 1996 Dom Perignon will always hold a warm spot in my heart as a magical wine that made the light bulb flick on for me about the beauty that wine offers. In many ways, I’m always comparing every wine I taste to that sublimely perfect bottle of 1996 Dom which may be why I’ve been so dishearten watching (and tasting) the changing style of Dom Perignon.

Of course the change started happening long before my magical 1996, but at some point Moët & Chandon made the decision that Dom Perignon was going to be marketed as more of a brand and lifestyle rather than necessarily as a wine. When you no longer have to sell something based on just the intrinsic quality of the wine, you are no longer limited in how many bottles you can produce. Though notoriously secretive about exact production figures, as of 2013 estimates were that around 5 million bottles of Dom Perignon are produced each vintage.

If Daniel’s runs out of ideas for future Champagne Gala events, we know there will always be plenty of Dom available.

While I’m sure they are having no problems selling those 5 million bottles each year (especially since the excess production has allowed the price to drop from $200-240 to around $130-150) perhaps it is no surprise that companies are finding plenty of Dom Perignon available to make gummie bears with.

The concept of “Vintage Champagne” was originally centered around the idea of a special bottling made only in exceptional vintages, but we are now seeing more and more vintages of Dom Perignon declared with 13 of the 41 vintages made between 1921 and 2006 coming after 1990. There are upcoming plans to release a 2008 & 2009 vintages as well. The increase in declared vintages is credited to global warming producing better vintages but, in comparison, Champagne Salon has only released 8 vintages since 1990. And in the years that they do declare a vintage, Salon only makes around 60,000 bottles.

The trade-off, of course, is fewer gummie bears.

That said, while Dom Perignon is clearly no longer one of the top prestige cuvees in the world. It is still a good Champagne, sourced from Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards in Aÿ, Avize, Bouzy, Verzenay, Mailly, Chouilly, Cramant and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, that can deliver adequate pleasure in the $100+ range so I enjoyed the opportunity to try two vintages side-by-side.

Double fisting Dom

The 2004 vintage is a blend of 52% Pinot noir and 48% Chardonnay with a dosage of 6 g/l. The exact details for the 2006 Dom Perignon weren’t given out at the dinner (and I couldn’t find them online) but I suspect the dosage is similar and Robert Parker has described the 2006 as more Chardonnay dominate. Each vintage of Dom Perignon is now released in three tranches called Plenitudes with the first (or regular) release of Dom being P1 that is released after the Champagne has spent 8 years aging on the lees.

My wife was originally annoyed about the uneven pours of the two Doms (2004 on left, 2006 on right) until she tasted them and realize she wasn’t missing much with not getting more 2006.


The second release of each vintage (P2) will see 16 years aging on the lees with the final plenitude (P3) being released after 21 years. While I have not had the privilege of trying a P2 or P3 release, there has only been 19 and 4 releases respectively, I will confess to being intrigued at their potential though admittedly not terribly excited to spend the $360-1600 to purchase a bottle.

The 2004 had medium plus intensity aromatics that was actually quite inviting. It had an intriguing mix of tropical fruit and spice that had me thinking of the grilled cinnamon rubbed pineapple you get from a Brazilian steakhouse. There was also a fresh cedar and tobacco box component that takes you to a cigar humidor. These are usually notes I associated with a nice red Bordeaux so I thoroughly enjoyed the extra complexity it gave to the Champagne.

Unfortunately not all these notes carried through to the palate which tasted more butterscotch like a Werther’s Original. The mouthfeel was still fresh, keeping with the house style, and while the finish was longer than any of the other Champagnes, it was still regrettably short. The finish did introduce, though, a spiced pear component that I found intriguing if not fleeting.

Both the rose and 2008 vintage overshadowed the 2006 Dom Perignon.


It paired very well with the beef tenderloin and, particularly, the lobster and Béarnaise sauce. Overall, the 2004 would be a wine that I would be content with for around $130-150 though certainly more thrilled with if I paid closer to $80-100.

The 2006, on the other hand, was pretty disappointing. I will give it the benefit of the doubt that it is a young release, and like with the Cristal, probably would benefit from more bottle age. You could also argue that it wasn’t benefiting from being compared next to the superior 2004 Dom Perignon (though technically the vintages themselves were of similar quality). But to be quite frank, the 2006 Dom Perignon lagged behind even the 2008 Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut.

The nose was the most shy of the night with medium minus intensity. Some faint citrus peel and toasted coconut flakes. Very light and indistinct. It could have been served as a long neck beer like the Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial and it might not have made a difference. To the wine’s credit, those faint notes did carry through to the palate and added a praline pastry quality that seemed more buttery when paired with the lobster. The finish, following the chorus of the evening, was fleeting.

Dessert paired with Moët & Chandon Nectar Impérial
Champagne-poached pear with vanilla pot de crème and spicy glazed pistachios.

The Moët & Chandon Nectar Impérial is the house’s demi-sec offering and like with Roederer’s Carte Blanche is a tasty little gem that shows how overlooked the demi-sec category is. Following the pattern of the other wines of Moët & Chandon, this non-vintage Champagne is a Pinot dominant blend that includes 20-30% reserve wines. The exact composition varies but is usually around 40-50% Pinot noir, 30-40% Pinot Meunier and 10-20% Chardonnay. The dosage is 45 g/l or 4.5% residual sugar. To put that in context, that is just slightly less sweet than a late harvest Riesling like the 2015 Chateau Ste. Michelle Harvest Select that had 47 g/l residual sugar.

But balance is the name of the game and you can not underestimate the ability of the acidity and bubbles to offer an exceptional counter to the sweetness. Even though I compared the dosage to the sweetness level of the CSM Harvest Select Riesling, truth be told, I would reckon that most people who tasted the Moët & Chandon Nectar Impérial side by side with something like the 2015 Eroica Riesling (a relatively dry Riesling with great acidity and 11.8 g/l of residual sugar) would feel that the Riesling was sweeter.

The wine had medium intensity with candied oranges and fresh white peaches. Those notes carried through to the palate with the candied oranges morphing more into an apricot note. Next to the 2004 Dom Perignon, this had a tad longer finish than the other Moët wines which was a pleasant way to end the evening. While it didn’t jive with the raspberry sauce used in the dessert, it did very well with the vanilla pot de crème. While there are other demi-secs in the $45-55 range that have impressed me more, this was still a very solidly made Champagne with great balance that should be placed near the top of the Moët & Chandon portfolio.

Overall Impressions

At the beginning of the event, Shawna Anderson, regional sales manager for Moët Hennessy USA, talked about the difference between the wines of the big houses like Moët & Chandon and grower producers. She said that with growers you never know what you get but with houses like Moët you get a consistent experience each time. And she’s right.

While I’m sure most readers can gleam my transparent affinity for hand crafted wine by smaller grower producers, I do not discount that there are sub-par and disappointing wines made by small growers. I also do not discount that large houses are built upon decades of sustained excellence that lay the bedrock of their growth. Likewise, I can’t argue that houses like Moët & Chandon are not consistent.

But then…. so is McDonald’s.

Outside of the 2006 Dom Perignon, I wasn’t disappointed with any of the wines featured at the Champagne Gala. Though I could certainly name at least a half dozen other Champagnes at lower or equivalent prices to the Moët & Chandon line up (some by big houses, some by smaller growers) that out performed the Champagnes of Moët & Chandon in delivering character and complexity, I can’t say that any of these wines are bad and not deserving to be purchased and enjoyed by people wanting a reason to celebrate.

It’s perfectly fine if you want to go dancing with Goliath. But folks should be clear that what they’re paying for in seeking the privilege of that dance is not necessarily for the quality in the bottle but, rather, for the name on the label.

For a review of last year’s Champagne gala see A Toast to Joy and Pain.

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Cristal Clarity


On November 29th, Esquin Wine Merchants in Seattle hosted a tasting featuring the Champagnes of Louis Roederer. The event featured 7 wines that was highlighted by a sampling of the newly released 2009 Cristal and curated by Roederer brand ambassador Cynthia Challacombe and Esquin’s Arnie Millan.

It was a wonderful evening of trying some truly outstanding Champagnes. I left the event not only with several bottles but also with two important lessons learned.

1.) The Roederer vintage Brut and Blanc de Blancs are some of the best bang for the bucks not only in the Roederer portfolio but also among all premium Champagne.

2.) Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to open their Cristal too soon.

The Geekery

There is a big dichotomy in the world of Champagne between the huge mega-corp producers like Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), which produces tens of millions of cases across its various brands like Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot, Moët and Chandon, Krug, Ruinart and Mercier, and smaller growers and producers.

While the wines of huge négociant houses like those of the LVMH stable aren’t bad, some, like Ruinart, in particular, are outstanding, it is a fair argument that sometimes the produce of these Goliaths can lack some of the character, heart and excitement of what you can find in the Champagnes of smaller growers. I say sometimes because magnificent wines can be found in many different incarnations–including in the cloths of Goliaths–but there is a reason why the marketing of the big mega-corps is more about the image and the brand than it is about the story of the vineyards and the people behind it.

As a sommelier friend of mine once aptly noted, “You buy the big houses for the name, you buy the growers for the wine.”

That said, while the house of Louis Roederer and its MTV-ready prestige cuvee of Cristal is often grouped as one of the big Goliaths, I can’t help but admire the twinkle of a “grower’s soul” that peaks out underneath the glitzy exterior of these wines.

The Champagnes tasted


Founded in 1733, the house is still family owned with Frédéric Rouzaud, great-grandson of Camille Olry-Roederer, being the 7th generation of the Roederer-Rouzaud family to run the estate. While officially a négociant, Louis Roederer owns a substantial amount of vineyards including nearly 600 acres of Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards that supply the vast majority of their needs. I was very pleasantly surprised to hear from brand ambassador Cynthia Challacombe that the only Champagne that Roederer uses purchased grapes for are for its entry-level non-vintage Brut Premier and even that is 70% estate fruit.

While Roederer does make around 3 million bottles of Champagne a year (or 250,000 cases), that doesn’t even crack the top 10 in production/sales in the Champagne region–lagging behind not only Pommery and Piper-Heidsieck but also far behind the 48 million bottles combined produced by the LVMH mega-Goliaths of Moët and Chandon and Veuve Clicquot.

This relatively small scale of production and majority control of grapes allows Roederer to be more hands on throughout the winemaking process from grape to bottle. This can also be seen in the house’s push towards converting eventually all of its vineyards to biodynamic viticulture. By 2012, they were Champagne’s largest biodynamic grower with around 160 acres (65 ha) being farmed under the system. Ms. Challacombe noted that the estate is now 41% biodynamic (around 246 acres) with the rest still being farmed organically and sustainably.

The Wines
Prices listed were the event pricing for the evening at Esquin.


NV Brut Premier- ($49) A blend of 40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot noir and 20% Pinot Meunier that is aged 3 years on the lees and bottled with 9-12 g/l dosage. Considering that the minimum aging requirement for non-vintage Champagne is only 15 months on the lees, it is admirable that Roederer holds their entry-level non-vintage to the same minimum of 3 years aging that is expected of vintage Champagnes.

The extended aging does pay off with a medium-plus intensity nose with aromas of tree fruit, candied ginger and apple pastry tart. On the palate, the mouthfeel is round and smooth with more apple notes coming out. It’s a tasty Champagne but my qualm is with how quickly the flavors fade and how short the finish is. I was expecting more persistence on the palate with how aromatic the nose was. For a sub $50 Champagne it is solid but I wouldn’t pay above that price.

2009 Brut Nature (Philippe Starck edition)- ($79) A blend of 66% Pinot noir/Pinot Meunier and 33% Chardonnay that is aged 5 years on the lees and bottled with no dosage. Sourced from a single vineyard in the village of Cumières in the Montagne de Reims, with a label designed by French designer Philippe Starck, this wine stands out from the rest of the Roederer line-up in both aesthetics and in profile. With its zero dosage and intense acidity, this was a sharply controversial wine at the tasting with many people not preferring this style.


I, on the other hand, absolutely adored this wine. It was by far the most mineral-driven and complex wine of the evening. High intensity aromatics of spiced pears, white flowers coupled with Turkish figs and graham cracker crust. On the palate, another chapter of the story unfolds with apple peels, water chestnuts and white pepper all backed by a bracing streak of rocky minerality. Even after the glass was empty, you could still smell the intense aromatics of the Champagne inside the glass. Stunning wine. It’s not for everyone but, for someone like me, it is a remarkable value for how much complexity it delivers.

2010 Blanc de Blancs- ($79) 100% Chardonnay from declassified vines in the Grand Cru villages of the Côte des Blancs, particularly Avize, that are usually allocated for Cristal. The wine is aged 5 years on the lees and bottled with 9 g/l dosage. Again going above and beyond the minimum aging for a vintage Champagne (3 years), the Blanc de Blancs is treated like a Tête de cuvée and, in many ways, this bottle of Champagne outshines many houses’ Tête de cuvée–even Roederers!

Essentially a “baby Cristal”, the medium plus intensity nose is extremely floral and fresh. It smells like Spring time with a neighbor baking cookies next door and the warm air bringing you a waft of that aroma intermingling with flowers and fresh cut grass. On the palate, the floral notes continue with an incredibly satiny mouthfeel that actually feels like you are drinking flower petals. The cookie notes on the nose morph into more brioche on the palate, still serving as a back drop to the overwhelming floral notes. Liquid lillies. Considering that this wine outshone the $200+ Cristal, and easily puts many other $100+ Champagnes to shame, this wine is an absolute steal for its quality level.

Tasting Sheet


2011 Brut Rosé- ($67) A blend of 63% Pinot noir and 37% Chardonnay that is aged 4 years on the lees and bottled with 9 g/l dosage. For the rosé color, both short maceration and blending with red Pinot noir wine is used. The keynote of “freshness” being part of the Roederer house style strikes through with this rosé taking me back to Plant City, Florida outside Tampa for their Strawberry Festival held every March.

Medium intensity on the nose with fresh strawberries and an intriguing streak of basil as well. Unfortunately the aroma fades rather quickly which made it a bit of a let down following the downright intoxicating bouquets of the Brut Nature and Blanc de Blancs. The mouthfeel is smooth and well balanced with the strawberry and basil notes carrying through. But, again, it fades with a short finish. There is always a bit of a premium when it comes to the pricing of rosés but this one is a bit of a stretch for delivering quality that matches its near $70 price point.

2008 Vintage Brut- ($70) A blend of 70% Pinot noir and 30% Chardonnay that is aged 4 years on the lees and bottled with 9 g/l dosage. Like the Blanc de Blancs, this Champagne also gets some of the declassified lots (presumably Pinot noir) that are allocated for Cristal as well as being sourced from it owns dedicated estate vineyards in the Grand Cru villages of Verzy and Verzenay.

Medium plus intensity nose that was only bested by the 2009 Brut Nature for best nose of the night. Cream puff pastry and hazelnuts. What was most enthralling was how it evolved over the short sample tasting to show the many different stages of making cream puff pastry from the fresh dough to baking the golden puffs and filling them. The freshness of the cream is also quite noticeable on the nose and carries its way to the palate where it is met by a little orange zest.


The mouthfeel was knee-bendingly silky, bested again only by one other wine–the 2010 Blanc de Blancs. Between the nose and mouthfeel, this Champagne was as close to a complete package as you could get and overall was my wine of the night. At around $70, this is an absolute steal that should leap frog on any Champagne lover’s purchasing list many, many Champagnes that are much more expensive.

NV Carte Blanche Demi-Sec- ($44) A blend of 40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot noir and 20% Pinot Meunier that is aged 3 years on the lees and bottled with 38 g/l dosage. As any sommelier or retailer who inwardly cringes when consumers request dry Brut bubbles to be served with their sweet wedding cake will tell you–the Demi-Sec category of sparklers is often woefully overlooked. I truly think it is because most people haven’t experience these wines and have painted a picture in their mind of wines that taste much more overtly sweet than they actually do.

The key to demi-sec wines is balance and the Roederer Carte Blanche is one of the most exquisitely balanced demi-sec bubbles that I’ve ever had. Medium intensity note redolent of fresh peaches with apple pastry tart mixed in. Focusing on the tip of your tongue, you can pick up the sweetness but it is so subtle and balanced by the acidity and bubbles that I would wager that even many experienced tasters would think it was more in the 12-17 g/l Extra Dry category than a Demi-Sec. Many Proseccos taste far sweeter than this elegant and exceptionally well made Champagne.


Unlike the premium pricing for rosés, this under-the-radar category is exceptionally undervalued with the Roederer Carte Blanche being a screaming good deal for under $60 much less under $45.

2009 Cristal ($232) A blend of 60% Pinot noir and 40% Chardonnay that is aged 6 years on the lees and bottled with 8 g/l dosage. Sourced exclusively from Grand Cru vineyards in the villages of Avize, Aÿ, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Cramant, Mesnil-sur-Oger, Verzenay and Verzy this is the crème de la crème of the Roederer portfolio. It’s a wine with a legendary history that was created for Russian royalty and is featured in music videos, movies and the Instagram pics of anyone wanting to show off. It elicits “oohs and ahs” whenever it is brought out. It truly is one of the Champagne world’s top prestige cuvees.

It’s also one of its most disappointing.

To be fair, this is because Cristal’s Veblen and “bling-worthy” status encourages people to pop and pour them almost as soon as they hit the market. Despite wine writers and Champagne lovers repeatedly urging people to hold onto their Cristals, these wines are often opened far too young. As Antonio Galloni of Vinous noted in his survey of Cristals from 1979-2002, this behavior is “… ironic, if not downright tragic, considering Cristal is a wine that starts peaking around age 15-20, and that can last much longer under ideal storage conditions.”

Now my experience with Cristal is no where near as extensive as Galloni’s but the opportunities I’ve had to taste of now four different vintages of Cristal (the 2004, 2006 and 2009 soon after release and the 1994 when it was 12 years of age) have followed a consistent pattern. The newly release Cristal Champagnes that I tried when they were 6 to 8 years old were very underwhelming with my tasting notes littered with descriptors of “short” and “simple”. While the 1994, which was still relatively too young and from a rather sub-par vintage, was vastly more intriguing and has ranked as one of the best wines that I’ve ever had.

This 2009 Cristal, while undoubtedly well made and with immense potential, ranked only above the entry NV Brut Premier in its showing at the tasting. And that’s not an indictment on the wine. It’s just a reality of tasting a wine that is miles away from it peak drinking window.


But it is not like the wine was undrinkable. It was just exceedingly simple. Medium minus intensity nose with vague floral and tree fruit notes. Some slight pink peppercorn. Its strongest attribute at the moment is the mouthfeel that shows hint of the silky flower petal texture you with get the Blanc de Blancs. In fact, the whole profile of Cristal is its litany of hints.

It has hints of the nose of the 2008 Vintage Brut.
It has hints of the mouthfeel of the 2010 Blanc de Blancs.
It has hints of the complexity of the 2009 Brut Nature.

If you could combine those 3 Champagnes into one bottle, and tell folks that it was Cristal, you would have legions of happy Champagne drinkers who would gladly shell out $200+ and feel like they’re getting more than their money’s worth. But, instead, you have a bottle that is drinking at this moment on par with what you can get from the Roederer house already for between $49 (NV Brut Premier) and $67 (2011 Brut rosé).

It truly is about this moment.

But, again, the 2009 Cristal is not a bad wine and I’m not saying that this is a wine that you shouldn’t buy if you have the money and inclination. I’m just saying that this isn’t a wine that you should open right now. The pedigree is there. The terroir is there. The care and dedication of the Champagne house is there. But if you are going to invest the money and your personal pleasure into getting a spectacular bottle of Champagne than you have to have patience and/or be willing to splurge for the premium of an aged example of Cristal that has been properly cellared.

Otherwise, do yourself a favor and save a boatload of cash by checking out some of the far less heralded and less “bling-worthy” bottles of vintage Champagnes from Roederer. There is truly some spectacular stuff coming out this house that over deliver on pleasure.

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A Toast to Joy and Pain

On Thursday, December 1st, 2016 I had a fabulous opportunity to attend the 9th Annual Champagne Gala held by Schwartz Brothers Restaurants at Daniel’s Broiler in Bellevue, Washington. The event featured Champagnes from the portfolio of LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) paired with a multi-course dinner prepared by Chef Kevin Rohr.
Daniel's Champagne Gala
The Champagne portfolio of LVMH is a literal “Who’s Who” of Champagne with names that are staples on restaurant wine lists and retailer shelves like Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, Ruinart and Krug. This event was a great chance to revisit several of these wines but what most excited me was geeking out over the food pairings.

Overall, it was a marvelous evening with some pairings absolutely singing though some were painfully kind of “meh”. But even then, we still had Champagne. Below is a rundown of my thoughts from the tasting.

Passed hors d’oeuvres paired with Moët & Chandon Impérial Ice
Treasure Cove oysters with duck fat braised leeks and Pancetta crisp, Green Goddess deviled egg with red onion pickle, caper and crispy Parmesan

This was one of the pairings that most intrigued me before the event. I’ve had the Ice Impérial before as a summertime cocktail by itself or paired with lightly sweet desserts such as shortcake with berries and cream but never with very savory appetizers. The Moët Ice Impérial labels itself as the first Champagne crafted to be served with ice but what always distinguished it for me was its noticeable sweetness due to the 45 grams per liter (g/l) dosage that puts it squarely in the Demi-Sec category of sweetness. To put this in context, the typical brut Champagne has anywhere from 0-12 g/l with the “sweet end” of brut being the equivalent to roughly 3 sugar cubes. The Ice Impérial has nearly 4 times that.

But the pairing worked. Sort of.

Moët Ice Impérial paired with Green Goddess Deviled Egg

Moët Ice Impérial paired with Green Goddess Deviled Egg


I’m a bit gun shy with oysters so I focused on the deviled eggs while a friend and coworker was my guinea pig for testing the oyster pairing. As you may see in the picture, instead of ice our Champagne was served with frozen pieces of fruit (cantaloupe or honeydew) with a rosemary skewer. While the rosemary was highly fragrant, and indeed too overpowering for some guests, it was also the bridge the pairing needed to work. Together the earthy floral elements of the rosemary played off the earthy and savory notes of the mayonnaise, caper and tarragon of the green goddess deviled eggs, letting the sweeter elements of the Champagne counter the saltier parts of the dish. For my friend, there was similar success with how the rosemary bridged the briny, earthier elements of the oyster with the Champagne.

In the interest of science (purely), we requested a second glass of the Ice Impérial without the fruit and rosemary and tried each pairing again. Completely different. The sweetness of the Champagne was more overt and distracting, particularly with the more subtle flavors of the deviled eggs and oysters. The joy of surprise in how well the rosemary tied things together was replaced with the pain of something too sweet for the dish.

Seated hors d’oeuvre paired with Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut
Pan-seared prawn & scallop with crispy herbed risotto cake, wild mushroom bisque

Among “wine people”, Veuve (particularly the ubiquitous Yellow Label) often gets a bad rap due to its mass production (10 to 12 million bottles a year) and McDonaldization style of marketing (i.e. If people see it everywhere, it will be the first thing they think of when they think of Champagne). However, you can not argue with the brand’s smashing success, especially in the US where Veuve Clicquot easily sells more than 4 million bottles of those 10-12 million produced each year.

Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut with pan-seared scallops and prawn

Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut with pan-seared scallops and prawn

You also can’t argue with the fact that it is a tasty bubbly that is incredibly easy to pair with food. The creamy mouthfeel of the mousse and subtle nuttiness played perfectly with the creamy mushroom bisque and risotto cake while the citrus fruits that dominate the Champagne’s profile were well suited for bringing out the mouthwatering flavors of the prawn and buttery delicious scallops. This pairing worked and I’m sure it was the best wine/food combo of the evening for a fair amount of the people in the room.

Both my coworker and another guest at our table aptly summed up the essence of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut when they noted that “Veuve is always good, but never great.” and that “It’s always consistent which, when you don’t know what to bring to someone’s house, is comforting.” They’re both completely correct. Veuve is consistently good and while, sure, most “wine people” can easily rattle off dozens of other better Champagnes that you can get for the same $40-60 price (including 100% Grand Crus) for Veuve, we can also just as easily rattle off dozen of Champagnes (including other “popular brands”) that are no where near as consistent as Veuve. So unless you have a sommelier or retail wine steward to point you in the direction of those Champagnes that are more likely to reach for “greatness”, you will rarely go wrong grabbing that ole familiar bottle of Yellow Label.

Salad paired with Ruinart Blanc de Blancs
Seared loin of lamb with Bibb lettuce, grilled radicchio and minted ranch drizzle

Ruinart Blanc de Blancs with seared loin of lamb

Ruinart Blanc de Blancs with seared loin of lamb

The brand ambassador for LVMH who joined us this evening succinctly described the house of Ruinart as the “best prestige house that most people haven’t heard of” and that is regretfully true. Founded in 1729, Ruinart is the oldest Champagne house still in operation and it seems like it has spent its nearly three centuries of excellence in a shadow of obscurity. Even sitting in the LVMH line up for this event with the likes of Krug, Veuve Clicquot and Moët & Chandon, I’m sure most people who looked at the pairing menu for the evening found their eyes glazing past the two bottles from a house named after the other 17th century Benedictine monk associated with Champagne.

But I won’t mince words here, the wines of Ruinart are fantastic and while I have not yet had the opportunity to try the house prestige vintage cuvée, Dom Ruinart, I would legitimately rank Ruinart’s NV Blanc de Blancs on the same level as the prestige cuvées of Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame, Mailly Les Échansons, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque and Bollinger La Grande Année. Those are all tremendous Champagnes but, at around $70-80 a bottle, the Ruinart can easily send all of them packing.

It starts with the bouquet of the Ruinart. As soon as the waiter poured the wine in the glass, from a good 15 inches away, my nose was tickled by the gorgeous white flowers and fresh, ripe peach fragrance–like someone picked a peach right off the tree and sliced it in front of you. On the palate, the peach is still there but is joined by apple and honey with a subtle pastry dough aspect. While I sometimes find Blanc de Blancs to be overly linear and simple, the complexity of this bottle is off the charts with every sniff and every sip bringing up something difference.

And the pairing, oh yes, there was food there too. Right. The lamb was phenomenal, melt in your mouth good and cooked perfectly. I love the steak at Daniel’s Broiler (and the next course certainly didn’t disappoint), but the lamb was the star of the evening. It will certainly give me a mountain of incentive on my next visit to bypass Daniel’s gorgeous steaks for whatever their lamb offering is. If you’re in the Seattle area, put this on your list of Must-Have meals.

But, alas, the pairing didn’t work out as well. While charming and elegant, the Ruinart was too light for the lamb and the radicchio overwhelmed it. I found myself wishing that this wine was paired with either of the two appetizer courses because, for as interesting as the rosemary twist with the Ice Impérial was and as admirable as the Veuve served the seafood course, the Ruinart Blanc de Blancs would have taken both of those pairings to soaring heights that neither of those first two Champagnes could achieve.

Entrée paired with Krug Grand Cuvée
USDA Prime New York strip steak with smashed cauliflower, foie gras butter and baby vegetables

When I first laid eyes on the menu and saw this pairing, the words “pure hedonism” crossed my mind. Krug is a powerful, penetrating Champagne that is both savored and sparred with on the palate so seeing it paired with foie gras butter dressed around an elegant yet forcefully flavorful New York strip steak prepared in Daniel’s 1800° broiler seemed tailor-made for perfection.

Krug Grand Cuvee paired with New York strip steak

Krug Grand Cuvee paired with New York strip steak

Krug is very unique in its intentionally oxidative winemaking style with fermentation in old 205 liter casks that impart lots of tawny-port style notes of hazelnuts and marzipan. While most non-vintage Champagnes are blends of around 3 to 5 vintages, Krug is always a blend of 10 or more vintage with some of the reserve wine being used coming from vintages that were harvested 20 years ago. Every release is crafted from a palette of around 120 different wines in a process that is not that dissimilar to how the great wines of Bordeaux are made. Krug is a prestige cuvée in every sense of both the words “prestige” and “cuvée”.

The pairing certain lived up the hype. Magnificent. The brawny, muscular nature of Krug with it brioche and ripe, rich fruit flavors held up to the weight and power of the steak. Somewhat surprisingly though, the part of the course that most sang with the wine was actually the earthy flavors of the smashed cauliflower. As a child I hated cauliflower but, as an adult, I think I will be enjoying it much more if I can keep pairing it good Champagne. I might not be able to afford to do that with Krug but I could probably swing a bottle of some of the “baby Krugs” of Bernard Bremont and Bollinger from time to time.

Dessert paired with Ruinart Rosé
Chocolate mousse cake with Moët crème anglaise

In someways it seemed fitting that the two pairings that I was most skeptical/intrigued about where the bookends to the meal. Whereas I was nervous that the Ice Impérial was too sweet for the appetizers, my concern with the Ruinart Rosé was that it was not going to be anywhere near sweet enough to hold up to the rich chocolate mousse. While I ended up pleasantly surprised with the M. Night Shyamalan-style rosemary twist that I didn’t see coming with the appetizer course, dessert ended up being much more The Happening than The Sixth Sense.

Ruinart Rosé and chocolate mousse

Ruinart Rosé and chocolate mousse

The cake was lovely–gorgeously rich and decadent. Too rich and too decadent to come anywhere close to finishing. The wine was likewise spectacular, with beautiful floral, cherry and blood orange aromas. Not as intensely aromatic as the Blanc de Blancs but still heralding its presence in the glass before the wine even comes close to your nose. The nice creamy mouthfeel gives it weight and presence. Though not quite as weighty as Tsarine or Veuve Clicquot roses, I think the Ruinart’s elegance more than supplements it weight.

Apart, the two items were fantastic but together this pairing was nearly as painful as watching Mark Wahlberg trying to emote sincerity when he ask the plants to kindly not kill him. The imbalance in sweetness and weight was just too much and I would have been more intrigued with how something like the Moët Ice Impérial Rosé could have went with the cake, especially with the regular Ice Impérial used as a base for the crème anglaise. But then that would have meant sacrificing another chance to enjoy the Ruinart Rosé. So I’ll gladly take the trade off of having my cake and (separately) Champagne too.

As I mentioned in the intro, the overall event was marvelous and an evening I would gladly live over many times over. Yes, there were pairings that fell flat but that was according to my taste and my palate and it certainly didn’t preclude the rest of my party (and I’m sure the rest of the room) from enjoying every delicious dish and drop of Champagne. In fact, you can say that it is the beauty of Champagne itself that almost guaranteed the success of the evening because even when Champagne is “bad”, it is still very, very good.

As the evening was wrapping up, Jeremy Paget the Director of National Accounts On Premise for Southern Wine and Spirits in the Seattle area, which distributes the LVMH portfolio in this market, offered an Irish toast that summed up the evening quite well.

A toast to joy and pain,

May all your joys be pure joys, and all your pain be Champagne.

Cheers!

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