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More Champagne, Darling?

If you crack open a bottle of Champagne at a dinner party you can be guaranteed that someone, usually an attractive lady, will start swooning, flicking her hair, and then launch into a very public declaration that it is her “absolute favorite wine”.

At that stage I usually smile, mutter words of agreement, and make a mental note-to-self that time spent with the said individual could be fun for me, but not for the VISA.

I’m full of admiration for the way the Champenois have marketed their bubbles. Nobody else has done a better job. They’ve made it synonymous with luxury, romance, special occasions, and living the good life. Simply put, we’ve fallen in love with their fizz.

The history of Champagne is fascinating. Firstly, there’s a dispute over who was the first to make it bubbly, because originally it was a “still” wine. In the region, Dom Perignon lays claim to being the inventor, but the winemakers in Limoux, an obscure region in southern France, accuse him of riding down on his donkey and stealing their winemaking secret, and then galloping back to Champagne to begin creating the most famous luxury brand in the world.

But in all likelihood it was not the French who were the first to make sparkling wine in commercial volumes. Instead, it was likely the English who created the glass that was strong enough to withstand the massive amounts of pressure in the bottle. But whatever the case, we do know that the first Champagnes were incredibly sweet, even sweeter than the dessert wine from Sauternes in Bordeaux.

Once it was made, it had to be sold. And the proximity of the Champagne region to Paris was a definite advantage because not only was there a large urban population, but it was also the home of the aristocracy. The Champenoise plied the monarchy with free bubbly, and the elite followed suit. Monkey see, monkey do. Jean-Rene Moet, of Moet et Chandon, even built Napoleon a mansion in Champagne, just in case he stopped by.

But it wasn’t just the monarchy and aristocrats in France that sipped Champagne at lavish banquets. The Champenois also managed to convince the Tsars in Russia, and the Royal Family in England, that they too should become devotees. And so, for lack of a better word, the brand of Champagne was established as a luxury product, with prices to match.

But for a luxury brand to endure it has to be consistently high quality. And on this critical point, the Champenois have delivered, at least at the pinnacle of production. Houses like Krug, Roederer, Dom Perignon, Salon, Pol Roger, Billecart-Salmon, Laurent Perrier, Lanson, Bollinger, Taittinger, and Veuve Clicquot continue to make a quality of wine that is unmatched by sparkling winemakers in other countries, and other regions in France.

One of the great things about Champagne is that it is quite easy to visit, because sooner or later everyone goes to Paris. It’s just 90 minutes away by car, or 30 minutes by TGV from the airport. If you give yourself 2 days, including one night of romance, you’ll have seen enough to get the general idea. After all, every House makes pretty much the same thing, in essentially the same way, although every producer puts their own unique spin on it.

The major city is Reims, and here you’ll find many of the major Houses, as well as the stunning cathedral. But in fact most of the vineyards are 30 minutes away surrounding the pretty town of Epernay. Driving over the hillside into Epernay is quite breathtaking, as you can see vineyards sloping down towards the river Marne, and right into the outskirts of the town itself.

There are three key sub-regions in Champagne to be aware of. The first is the Montagne de Reims, which is a little misleading because it’s more of a large hill than a mountain. This is primarily planted to Pinot Noir, a grape that benefits from the southerly exposure that the hillside provides, in order to help ripen the grapes in this cool climate.

At the bottom of the hill, and following the river, is the Valle de la Marne, which is predominantly planted to Pinot Meunier, another black grape. The reason is that Pinot Meunier breaks its buds later in the Spring than the other varieties, and so it is less prone to the severe frosts that can result in crop loss. Keep in mind that a major reason for most Champagne being non-vintage (i.e. a blend of several different vintages) is because the Spring frosts can decimate a crop.

Finally, you have my favorite region, which is the Cotes des Blancs, home to some of the most refined wines based on the Chardonnay grape.

In terms of grape-growing, or viticulture, each village in the region has been graded on a quality scale. It ranges from 80% up to 100%, and the classification is based upon the quality potential of the vineyards in that little village. If you own vineyards in a Grand Cru village, rated 100%, then you’re laughing all the way to the bank because the Houses pay a premium for grapes from these terroirs. I love the names of some of the villages, and suggest you make a stop in Bouzy before heading to Dizy. Obviously, if you own vineyards in a village rated 80% then you’re not quite so sought-after.

One of the key aspects of the terroir is the chalky soils, and in many places it is pure chalk, good enough for a school mistress to use. In some places the chalk is so deep that it extends to a depth of 400 feet, although I can’t vouch for that personally. This chalky soil helps reflect light back onto the grapes to assist with ripening, provides excellent drainage in this wet region, and gives the wines a certain finesses, elegance, and class, that you rarely find outside of Champagne.

Once the grapes are picked in September, which is always done by hand, they are rushed to the press in order to minimize oxidation. There are strict laws regulating the amount of juice you can extract from a press load, because the harder you squeeze the grapes, the worse the quality becomes. Other sparkling wine producers in other countries have no such regulation, and should take note.

Once the juice is extracted it is then placed in stainless steel tanks, which have largely replaced the oak barrels that were commonplace until the 1970’s. The first fermentation proceeds, generally triggered by inoculation with commercial yeast, and the wine is fermented to dryness.

Now comes the true art of making great Champagne, which is the blending, or assemblage, as they call it. Each House will have a portfolio of wines, which may include a luxury cuvee, a vintage wine, the standard non-vintage, and maybe a Rose, amongst others.

The amazing part to me is that the winemaker, with the assistance of an experienced team, often has over 500 ‘lots’ to work with. A non-vintage, will include wines held in reserve from previous vintages. The potential permutations are endless. A little bit of Chardonnay from this village, a splash of Pinot Noir from another town, some reserve wine from 2, 4 or 7 years ago, 1% of this, 3% of that… and so on.

What never ceases to amaze me is that the winemakers are able to foresee how these different lots will marry together, and what they will taste like when enjoyed years later. In some cases, the wines will not be released for 10 years. Making a pink Champagne that is destined for long ageing is the greatest challenge of all because it is so hard to get the color right, and hence the fact they are generally the most expensive wines in the luxury cuvee category.

Once the blend is made, the wine is bottled and then a small amount of yeast and sugar is added to trigger the second fermentation, which creates the carbon dioxide that dissolves in the wine. This is kept inside the bottle by sealing it with a crown cap.

And then it is taken down into the underground cellars, which are dug out of chalk, and one of the wonders of the wine world. Some of the largest Houses have several million bottles in stock, all slowly maturing, and the largest producer, Moet, has a staggering 96 million bottles ageing.

After the yeast has eaten the sugar and created the bubbles, plus a tiny bit more alcohol, it starts to breakdown, or decompose. The long ageing time on the dead yeast cells, called the lees, contributes a bready, toasty, biscuit character to the wine which all contribute to the complexity and depth found on the nose and palate. No other sparkling wine region has minimum ageing times as long as the Champenois impose on themselves.

To ensure that what we actually drink doesn’t have any sediment, or dead yeast, floating around in it there is an elaborate process of gradually turning the bottles into a vertical position. This is called riddling, or remuage, and at some Houses it is still done by hand. A riddler can turn about 40,000 bottles in a day, with a precise motion that causes the sediment to gradually slip into the neck of the bottle. This is something to see, and I suggest you visit within the next 20 years because machines, called giropalettes, are taking over from the human touch.

When the bottle is almost upside-down, and the sediment in the neck, the bottle is dipped in a freezing brine solution and the sediment is frozen into an ice plug. The bottles then rattle along the bottling line, the crown cap is removed, the sediment shoots out from the massive pressure of the bubbles, and then the final sweetness of the wine is adjusted in a process called dosage. After that the bottle is labeled, the wire muzzle placed over the cork, and a long capsule, or skirt, placed over the neck. And voila, the wine is typically shipped shortly thereafter.

So, what should you buy? And what foods should you pair these Champagnes with? Now if I wanted to make myself popular with the Champagne lover, and I’d taken her to a 2 star Michelin restaurant for an 8 course dinner, I’d go for a line-up like this.

Roederer – Cristal – Vintage
The ultimate way to declare your love, perhaps with a few oysters to up the ante.

Lanson – Noble Cuvee – Vintage
One of the great winemakers in Champagne is Jean-Paul Gandon, who makes a stunning luxury cuvee, that pairs well with smoked salmon tartare.

Taittinger – Comtes de Champagne – Vintage
This exquisite Blanc de Blancs, made just from Chardonnay, is a model of elegance, delicacy, yet intense power. Scallops St Jacques please.

Krug – La Grande Cuvee – NV
A spectacular Champagne that is very rich, and pairs well with a dish such as Halibut.

Billecart Salmon – Rose – NV
A fantastic pink Champagne, which has a touch more body than most whites, and pairs well with a morsel of veal.

Bollinger – R.D. – Old Vintage
An old Bolly that has been recently disgorged, and pairs well with creamy cheeses, such as goats cheese.

Veuve Clicquot – Demi-sec – NV
A sweet champagne, perfect with a light puff pastry with strawberries and raspberries.

Laurent Perrier – Ultra Brut – NV
This has absolutely no sugar added during the dosage, and I would explain to my new friend that it’s the equivalent of a diet Champagne, enabling one to remain slender, and best sipped as the dawn approaches.

Published on James Cluer’s The Vancouver Sun blog on Dec 9, 2011.

What to buy for $15?

The good news is that you can buy quite a few good quality wines for that amount. The fact is that most people don’t spend much more than $15 on a bottle of wine.

In sparkling wine I would buy Spanish Cava. Wines like Segura Viudas are exceptional value given that they are made in the same method as Champagne. Don’t expect anything widely complex, but instead the wine will be dry, medium to light bodied, crisp and refreshing and showing lots of green fruit.

In Sauvignon Blanc I would buy from Chile, which just inches out New Zealand which tends to be a few dollars more. In Chile look out for wine labeled as coming from the Casablanca valley. They are aromatic, pure and focus, with Sauvignon’s classic herbaceous qualities. Santa Rita can make good wines.

There are some pretty good Pinot Grigios from Italy in this price range, Chardonnays from Australia, and for a few dollars more you can buy delicious Rieslings and Gewurztraminers from Alsace. But if you really want me to name a single country that makes excellent value white wines from a multitude of different grapes it has to be Chile.

For red wines, Malbec from Argentina is excellent value. They’re deep, dark, full bodied and brimming with juicy black fruits. These are the best value red wines on the market today.

In Europe, southern Italy and southern France can offer some excellent deals on their red wines. Look for areas that are not well known. Producers here have a harder time selling their wines and that works in your favor. Portuguese reds are incredible value too and Spanish reds from La Mancha ranks amongst the best values.

Again, I would take a serious look at Chile for Merlot and inexpensive Pinot Noir. And Australia has some unbelievable prices on Shiraz. So in fact there is quite a lot of choice.

For sweet wines you typically pay more than $15 but the best values are Canadian late harvest Rieslings, sweet Chenin from the Loire valley, and you can even buy Sauternes for $20.

To cap it all off, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port is a fantastic deal with some around  $20-$25. Plus the bottle can stay open for about one week.

You usually get an increase in quality as prices go up. But there are plenty of nice wines around $15 too.

Wine from Interesting Places

Mexico, Hawaii, Thailand, Bali, Japan and China all make wine. Whilst some of the wines can taste “unusual”, you can find some “good” wines from unlikely places.

I once visited a vineyard just outside Bangkok, called Monsoon valley. Even more bizarre, it was a floating vineyard where the vines were planted on mounds of earth that rose up out of a shallow lake. You had to walk across a narrow plank to get from one row to the next, and the big worry was falling in and getting bitten by a water snake. The grapes were harvested by leaning out of a little canoe and snipping off the bunches.

I think it will be a while before wines from places like these feature amongst the best in the world, but modern technology has gone a long way to allowing producers to make wines in unlikely places. Nurseries can create grape varieties that are suited to very hot, or very cold, climates. Grape growers can use irrigation and canopy management techniques to help achieve optimum levels of ripeness. And with the use of temperature control winemakers can fashion wines to be quite palatable.

The fun is that these wines actually exist. Right now, in export markets, they are mainly treated as curiosities.

Understanding Wine Scores

Robert Parker, the world’s leading wine critic, explains on his website that “scores are important for the reader to gauge a professional critic’s overall qualitative placement of a wine.” He goes on to say that “no scoring system is perfect” and “there can never be any substitute for your own palate.”

And that just about sums it up. The bottom line is that wine buyers are faced with an overwhelming amount of choice and it is useful to get some guidance from a professional critic. A wine that scores 95-100 points is a classic, 90-94 points is outstanding, 85-89 is very good, and 80-84 points is just considered to be good. Beyond that, well, you don’t want to know.

But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that the point scoring system is very controversial. Some major critics refuse to use it. They think it’s impossible to give a numeric score to something likened to art. Decanter magazine, the major publication in the UK, argues that giving points to wine is like giving scores to Picasso’s great works. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Another important reason for not using the 100 point system is because even professional tasters can be inconsistent in their ratings. Dr. Vino, a wine critic, attended a tasting of top flight Bordeaux with Parker himself last September where all of the wines were tasted blind. The result? Parker’s gave the highest score to a wine that he had scored the lowest in his most recent publication.

Dr. Vino’s published article does give weight to the argument that there is inconsistency even amongst the top critic’s. At the same tasting, Parker identified several Medoc wines as coming from the Right Bank. But believe it or not, it’s easy to mistake a Cabernet dominated wine from a Merlot in Bordeaux. Blind tasting is tricky business.

The 100 point system also causes confusion amongst the more inquisitive consumers. It’s perplexing that a wine costing hundreds of dollars per bottle can be rated the same as one costing just $15 or $20 dollars. The major critics state that they taste wines within their peer groups. But where exactly does a peer group start and stop?

Take New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as an example. Would you class wines costing between $15-$20 as a peer group, or is it more like $15-$30 as a price range? The latter price range would be more advantageous to the more expensive wines, at least in theory.

It also costs a lot of money to gather together a peer group of wines, and only the very top publications can afford to do this.

Another argument against the 100 point system is that every wine seems to get at least 85 points. In fact, the ratings start at 50 points and if a wine is particularly poor then the review may not get published. Today, a score between 85 and 88 isn’t worth much to a winery or the trade. It’s the 90 pointers that make an impact.

But there’s also the related issue of how tough the scorer is relative to another critic. Some local wine critics rarely give over 90 points to a wine, whereas others seem to be running out of points. If some of the top 2008 Bordeaux’s got very high scores, then what will they get in the better 2009 vintage?

The “anti-point” contingent argues that the major critics, who make markets with their scores, have become so powerful that producers are making wines just to suit their palates. There is some truth to this claim. This can result in homogeneity of wine styles, where all red wines look very dark in color, has gobs of sweet fruit, and no shortage of power and concentration. This is a shame, because part of the richness of wine is the celebration of its diversity.

But the bottom line is that the 100 point system is the most consumer-friendly and it helps the wine industry too. If a winery scores highly then the cash register will start ringing. The major trade buyers are more inclined to list it because they know it will help sell wine. And sales representatives, Sommeliers, and retailers love it because it gives third party endorsement to what they are saying.

Keep in mind that it’s usually only the better quality wines that get scored. The wines that sell massive volumes at inexpensive prices are not usually rated, and this seems wrong, given that this is where the majority of consumers are looking for advice.

I believe that the major wine critics act in the best interest of the consumer, and are trying to simply give some guidance to the best of their ability. A score is easier to understand than a flowery tasting note. Numeric scores immediately give an indication of the relative quality of the wine. And essentially it’s that, an indication of quality, but it’s not a perfect system.