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A Sparkling Countdown to New Year’s Eve (Part 2)

John Szabo’s report on luxe Champagnes is part two of WineAlign’s series on bubblies for the holidays. Just before New Year’s Eve, part three will provide a shopping list of more affordable sparklers. All recommendations below are currently available somewhere in Canada. Readers in B.C. and Ontario can check out nearest store inventories through WineAlign, or you can contact the importing agent. A feature on Maison Krug follows John’s report – in which Olivier Krug reveals the vision of his great-great-great grandfather and the not-so-secret secret of the champagne house’s success, as well as his (grandmother’s) recipe for killer ratatouille.

Luxe Bubbles for 2013
plus a profile on Maison Krug
by John Szabo

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Champagne, by virtually any definition, is a luxury product. But there’s an awful lot of poor quality champagne, made from some of the highest yielding vineyards in the world (relative to average selling price) with questionable attention to detail, and defects neatly, and legally, masked by a generous dollop of sugar (“dosage”) at bottling. And uniformly high pricing based on the weight of the collective “brand champagne” makes shopping by price a roll of the dice.

But as Treve Ring explored in her article last week entitled Farmer Fizz, real champagne is a wine, not a brand. As such, quality and style are as diverse as the 275,000 or so vineyard parcels in the region, the 19,000 registered growers who farm them, and the several thousand enterprises that produce and sell champagne. So here’s a short list of the best wines I’ve tasted recently that deserve the luxe tag, divided into a couple of unofficial style categories that I find useful. Unlike cheap fizz, I’d suggest serving these luxe champagnes in large white wine glasses rather than straitjacket-like flutes in order to enjoy their full aromatic complexity and layered texture.

Toute En Finesse et Fraîcheur

These are champagnes focused on delicacy and elegance rather than sheer power, perfect for sipping or serving alongside luxury shellfish for a classy pairing.

Henriot Souverain Brut ChampagneRuinart R De Ruinart Brut ChampagneLouis Roederer Cristal Brut Champagne 2005Cristal Brut Champagne 2005 (ON $287.95)

Made from select parcels of vineyards owned by Maison Roederer, the 2005 Cristal is a surprisingly delicate and floral wine despite the power of the vintage and 20% barrel fermented base wine. It offers ethereal notes of ripe, toasted citrus-lemon-bergamot, fresh sweet herbs and striking wet-chalk minerality. There’s plenty of action on the palate, with immediate mouth-filling impact focused by laser sharp definition. Flavours reverberate and expand beautifully.

Ruinart R De Ruinart Brut Champagne (ON $77.95)

A classy, elegant and very refined example, replete with almond, hazelnut, white chocolate and fresh baked croissant-type aromas and flavours. Excellent length and depth; crisp and dry.

Henriot Souverain Brut Champagne (ON $59.95)

A classy, heavily autolytic (biscuity, yeasty) champers with terrific complexity and more than an average measure of finesse. Delicate citrus and white fleshed fruit linger with blanched almond and fresh hazelnut.

Piper Heidsieck BrutGosset Brut ExcellencePiper Heidsieck Brut (ON $54.95)

Piper is the fresher, leaner and crisper bottling relative to stable-mate Charles Heidsieck. Considerable flavour intensity is wrapped around lightly caramelized citrus-lemon-orange peel flavours, and autolysis character is modest. It’s lip-smackingly dry, crisp and precise on the palate, making for a fine aperitif, or oyster accompaniment.

Gosset Brut Excellence (ON $53.00)

Gosset lays claim to being the oldest house in Champagne, dating back to 1584. Despite recent reports by several authorities that the wines have grown too oxidative in style (a big discussion point in Champagne these days), I find this latest release of the Brut Excellence to be neither overtly fruity, nor markedly mature or oxidative, but rather quite right. This presents itself as properly lean, tight and lively, on the drier side of brut.

Rich, Mature and Toasty

These are powerful and intense champagnes, often made with a high proportion of reserve wines (older vintages used for blending), with extra long ageing on the lees, or mature vintage champagnes.

Jacquesson Cuvée 736 Extra Brut Champagne 2008Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut Champagne 2004Krug Grande Cuvee Brut ChampagneKrug Grande Cuvée Brut Champagne (ON $271.95)

The latest release of the Grande Cuvée falls squarely within the Krug house style of intensely autolytic and mature wine, with its pronounced honeyed, toasted wheat bread, roasted almond and hazelnut profile; massively complex. The palate is generous, densely concentrated and compact, powerful yet finessed. Certainly an outstanding Grande Cuvée. See the article below for more details on Krug.

2004 Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut Champagne (ON $83.95)

Moët’s ’04 vintage displays immediate class, even if the palate is tightly wound and a bit shier than expected. Yet there’s more than sufficient density and extract to evolve further over the next few years. This is very nearly as good as the Dom Pérignon prestige cuvée, at 1/3 the price.

Jacquesson Champagne Cuvée 736 Extra Brut (ON $67.95)

Jacquesson’s Cuvée nº 736 is based on the fine 2008 vintage with 1/3 of reserve wines, made from just over half chardonnay. It’s mature and developed, with flavours shifting into the caramelized, honeyed, candied citrus zest and sautéed apple-pear-peach spectrum. The palate is gentle and relatively soft, with enough dosage to buffer acids. Wonderful balance and length all around.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve ChampagneFleury Champagne Blanc De Noirs BrutChâteau De Bligny Champagne Blanc De Blancs BrutCharles Heidsieck Brut Réserve Champagne (ON $59.95)

Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve – lot number 3006442 – is another fine example offering an enticing juxtaposition of freshness and elegance with maturity and complexity. Precise, tart citrus fruit flavours mingle with plenty of toasty-biscuity notes from reserve wines and considerable time on the lees. Outstanding complexity.

Fleury Champagne Blanc De Noirs Brut (ON $56.95)

A biodynamically-grown grower’s champagne. Notably deep golden colour, and intensely rich and toasty aromatics to match, wonderfully mature, focused on toasted almonds and hazelnuts, dried fruit, and plenty of toasted wheat bread with honey and apple turnover. The palate is very dry, braced by riveting acids with excellent length. Best served at table, with, say, a hazelnut-encrusted sea bass.

Château De Bligny Champagne Blanc De Blancs Brut (ON $43.95)
Here’s a classy, vinous, evidently concentrated and superb value grower champagne. It displays uncommon richness and flavour intensity for a non-vintage offering at this price, and drinks more like a table wine than a sparkling wine. I’d confidently serve this alongside veal scaloppini or poached fish in beurre blanc, or white truffled pasta or risotto.

Brut Non-Dosé (or so it seems)

Champagnes made with low, or no added sugar after disgorging, bracingly dry and crisp, perfect to start off the evening (or afternoon).

José Dhondt Blanc De Blancs Brut ChampagneChampagne Agrapart Terroir Blanc De Blanc Grand Cru ChampagneChampagne Agrapart Terroir Blanc De Blanc Grand Cru (Lot From May 2010, Disgorged February 2013, ON $68.95)

The latest release of Agrapart’s Terroir Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut is a particularly dry and firm bottling, and flavourful to be sure, with mainly sour citrus and green apple fruit. I found that aeration made a profound improvement in both flavour and texture, so in this rare instance I’d recommend decanting for now, albeit gently to avoid losing too much effervescence.

José Dhondt Blanc De Blancs Brut Champagne (ON $53.95)

A somewhat rustic, if authentic, grower’s champagne, with a range of aromatics far outside the traditional profile of commercial champagne brands, that draws you inexorably in. Very mineral and lightly vegetal, with discreet fruit, and very dry and crisp yet balanced on the palate, with genuine concentration and complexity. Well worth a look for intrepid consumers.

Tarlant Champagne Brut ReserveAndré Clouet Silver Brut Nature ChampagneTarlant Champagne Brut Reserve (ON $40.85)

Tarlant’s Brut Reserve is very dry and crisp in keeping with the house style, very close to the brut zéro for which the house is best known (6 grams/liter residual sugar here). You’ll find plenty of toasted wheat bread, almond, buckwheat, and sautéed lemon flavours, while the palate is lean, rivetingly tart and seemingly bone dry.

André Clouet Silver Brut Nature Champagne (ON $57.95)

There’s a good reason why this became my ‘house champagne’ a couple of years ago – it’s simply outstanding value. This latest release from the dedicated grower André Clouet is a complex, toasty, yeasty, vinous and concentrated wine, with a broad and appealing range of aromas and flavours, full, intense and marvellously apportioned, which drinks the equal of many vintage cuvées at double or more the price. Ready to savour now, preferably at the table alongside fish or poultry in cream sauce.


Rare and frequently over priced, this is one of the toughest categories to find quality and price matched up. Here area couple that make the cut.

Legras & Haas Brut Rosé ChampagneDevaux Cuvée Rosée Brut ChampagneDevaux Cuvée Rosée Brut Champagne (ON $59.95)

The terra cotta-tinged appearance foreshadows a highly evolved aromatic profile, leading off with toasted walnuts and caramel, followed by ripe cherry and pomegranate fruit. Acids are sharp and bright and length very good  this has some rustic appeal and solid flavour intensity all around.

Legras & Haas Brut Rosé Champagne (ON $64.99)

A refined and elegant rosé, pale pink, fully focused on delicate red fruit, strawberry, cherry, raspberry and fresh pomegranate, alongside floral-rose petal tones. This is a champagne of delicacy and finesse, with very fine and gentle mousse, and very classy indeed. Note that this is available through private order only so you won’t be drinking it this New Year’s Eve, but it was too fine not to include.

Profile: Maison Krug – A Vision Revealed

After nearly 170 years, Olivier Krug, the 6th successive generation of Krugs to run the famous Champagne house, finally understood the essence of his family’s business. He did so after discovering some writings in the family archives a couple of years ago written by his great-great-great grandfather, Joseph Krug. The letters reveal the origins of Krug’s somewhat unique position in the champagne world in that they present the Grande Cuvée, a multi-vintage champagne, as the company’s flagship wine, rather than the vintage-dated prestige cuvée of the majority of other champagne houses. “The day I read Joseph’s words was the day I understood Krug” relates Olivier.

Joseph Krug founded his eponymous champagne business on November 7, 1843. He was born in Mainz, then part of France, and grew up in a French school before moving to Paris to live large. After meeting the agent for Champagne Jacquesson, the largest company in Champagne at the time, he got his start in the champagne business in 1833 working for, and eventually co-managing Champagne Jaquesson along with M. Jaquesson himself.

Olivier continues the story: “five years after Joseph joined Jaquesson, he sent a memo to his boss, which we recovered, stating quite simply that “we should aim to offer the best every year”. “And by definition you cannot offer the best possible champagne every year from a single vintage.” Joseph wished to make a more consistent, and original, house style of champagne.

But Jacquesson was not interested in changing his company’s policies, so Joseph started working with a negociant on the side to discover the best parcels of land in the region. He wanted to go beyond the “three colours” of champagne: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, and look more closely at the different expressions of these grapes in different terroirs. “Since every terroir is going to give something different, expressing something of each parcel could be enriching, and could be the base for an even better, even sharper selection”, explains Olivier.

The Birth of Champagne Krug

So when Krug left Jaquesson to start his own company, very much against his wife’s wishes who was happy with their already comfortable life, “he knew exactly what he had to do and how to go about creating a champagne that would offer not only the best possible quality every year, but also go beyond vintage, which is only a single expression of a single year”.

At the age of 48 in 1848 Joseph Krug wrote a note in his diary to his six-year-old son, saying that “there are times that you might be tempted to use some grapes of a lesser, or even mediocre quality, and you might even succeed. But these are cases on which you should never rely otherwise you may lose your reputation.”

Joseph continues in his writings: “A good [champagne] house should aim to produce two cuvées of the same composition and quality: number one is the Grande Cuvée – this should be the focus, to offer everything that champagne can offer every year, whose quality should be unquestionable every year, a champagne that goes beyond vintage. Cuvée nº2 depends on the circumstances of the vintage and the climate, as good as the first cuvée, but which is only the product of one year, the result of the climate, the story of a single year”.

Olivier Krug, Maison Krug

Olivier Krug, Maison Krug

This was a radical notion at the time since then, as is still true today, the hierarchy in champagne is reversed: non-vintage is subordinate to vintage wines. But this philosophy was not clever marketing or promotional material for the fledgling House of Krug, but a private note to his son and eventual successor, written in a diary. The same uncompromising standards have been upheld at Krug ever since, and has made of Krug champagne an icon of the industry and the champagne of choice for those who can afford it whenever the moment calls for celebration and pleasure. “Joseph understood that champagne is about pleasure. Whenever you open a bottle of champagne it’s for pleasure”, says Olivier.

Olivier had spent over twenty years trying to describe the vision of Maison Krug, struggling to explain to customers that Krug Grande Cuvée is not a “non-vintage” champagne, nor is it a “vintage” champagne, but rather that it’s a unique wine assembled from a vast and ever-changing puzzle that includes the different pieces provided by the authorized grapes, the 275,000+ potential parcels of vineyards, as well as the variations imposed on both terroir and grape by the yearly climatic conditions. Reading the words of Joseph outlining his vision for great champagne put everything into perspective for Olivier, as though everything he had always believed but had had difficulty expressing suddenly became clearer, as though he had been handed the company’s original mission statement and a justification for its continued implementation.

The Secret: Plot-Based Contracts

In addition to the grapes supplied by the company’s own vineyards, one of the secrets to Krug’s success is their unique contractual arrangements with growers. Most grape contracts are volume-based (in fact, contracts are based on the number of hectares agreed upon for sale, but since yields and pressings are fixed across the region each year by the authorities, it amounts to a volume-based contract), which is to say that a grower will sell the equivalent amount of must produced from a given number of hectares, even though the specific physical plots of origin are not specified. But Krug ties its contracts to specific parcels within the holdings of any individual grower, in effect both a volume and terroir-based contract, plot-by-plot.

“Take a single grower in Bouzy, with five hectares” begins Olivier. “Even such a small holding is divided into fifteen different plots, and not all are equal. The grower might agree to sell one-fifth of her total production each year (the equivalent from one hectare of vineyards) to five different houses, including Krug. But we will go to that grower and ask her to identify the best, say 3-4, parcels that total one hectare, those which she thinks will meet the standards and expectations of Krug. The growers often look at us with big eyes and say, “you mean I can choose grapes for you?” For most people, grapes are grapes. Not for us.”

The system works because Krug vinifies all the individual plots of their growers separately – in 2013, for example, Krug vinified 300 separate lots. The precision often goes as far as vinifying the three legally permitted pressings of each lot of grapes separately. Krug then invites the growers back later in the year to taste the result of their work in the vineyard. “We’ve seen vignerons shed tears when they taste how beautiful their wine turned out” says Olivier. The pride of the growers drives them to reserve their best plots of grapes for Krug, knowing that they won’t disappear anonymously into a huge tank.

Champagne Ratatouille

Olivier draws a cooking analogy to explain the small lot production philosophy. “Take ratatouille. To make a quick dish, you start with all of the vegetables, put them into a big steam cooker, cook them for 40 minutes, add some salt and pepper and voilà you have ratatouille, and it’s very good because you started with good ingredients. And then you have ratatouille like my grandmother used to make. She would take the tomatoes one by one and peel off the skin, and reduce them slowly on their own for two hours. And then she would take the onions separately and sauté them, and then she would take the eggplant and… Only at the end would she assemble everything. Both ratatouilles are made with essentially the same ingredients, with the same percentages of each vegetable. But you taste them and they are totally different. This was the philosophy that Joseph had in 1843.”

The Krug ID System

But even with the incredible mosaïque of material to work with, Grande Cuvée displays variation from bottling to bottling. “Grande the cuvée is not the same every year. It always delivers the same house expression, but tasted side by side there are differences” Olivier reveals. To address this issue, one that continually plagues me as I wonder which specific bottling of a particular champagne I’m drinking and when it was disgorged, Krug introduced a unique ID system in 2011 that allows you to look up details on specific bottlings at The current release of Krug Grande Cuvée, in the LCBO as of the November 23rd, 2013 release, bears I.D.# 411045, which according to the website “left the Krug cellars to receive its cork in autumn 2011. This is the last step after more than six years of ageing in the cellars to acquire finesse and elegance. This bottle is an extraordinary blend of 134 wines from 12 different vintages, the oldest from 1990 and the youngest from 2005.”

A “Rich and Generous Expression of Champagne”

As though to underscore the primacy of Grande Cuvée within the house’s range, we taste the 2000 vintage Krug first, the opposite of the customary champagne tasting which begins invariably with the non-vintage cuvée. It is of course excellent wine, but when we move on to the current release of the Grande Cuvée, the wine has an extra dimension absent in the vintage cuvee. It falls squarely within the immediately recognizable Krug house style of intensely autolytic and mature wine, “rich and generous” as Krug describes it, with its pronounced honeyed, toasted wheat bread, roasted almond and hazelnut profile offering amazing complexity. There are few wines in the world I’m prepared to pay such a princely sum for, but if you derive pleasure from Krug, it really is quite unique.

Pairing Food & Wine for DummiesNeed a last minute gift? Consider Pairing Food and Wine For Dummies by John Szabo MS, published by John Wiley & Sons Canada. It’s the go-to guide for getting it right every time  food and wine are involved, including getting the most for your money in restaurants, home entertaining, gift giving, and even what it takes to become a sommelier. And if you don’t believe me, read what respected drinks critic Stephen Beaumont (Books, Books, Books. What to buy for whom;  Coffee table eye candy edition) had to say about it. It’s available online and in fine bookshops all over the English-speaking world.

That’s all for this week. I wish you a safe, happy holiday and a new year full of fine bubbles.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

A Sparkling Countdown Part 1: Farmer Fizz
Complete list of recommended wines: Sparkling Countdown 2013

Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Reserve Champagne

Vancouver Wine Festival - Feb 27 - Mar 1

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A Sparkling Countdown to New Year’s Eve (Part 1)

Over the next three weeks WineAlign will explore the fabulous world of fizz. Today Treve Ring goes to the heart of the matter with a look at ‘growers Champagne’.  Next week John Szabo goes top drawer to illuminate the glittering world of luxe Champagnes.  And just before New Year’s WineAlign critics combine to recommend affordable sparklers for those making a mad dash before the midnight hour.

Farmer Fizz
by Treve Ring

Treve Ring

Treve Ring

Farmer Fizz. Champagne of Terroir. Artisanal Champagne. Récoltants-Manipulants. Authentically Vintage Champagne. All terms I’ve come across to describe Grower Champagne. So – what is it? Well, in the simplest of forms, it’s Champagne made from growers. Easy, right? But let me break it down a bit further. I travelled extensively through Champagne this fall, tasting with a mix of growers, producers, grand houses and major négociants. I tasted exemplary Champagne, across all levels and sources. While it’s not true that Grower Champagnes are intrinsically better, they are inherently characterful, singular and relevant. This is especially timely in this wine age when consumers are asking questions, searching for a sense of place and talking terroir like never before. Champagne made on a much smaller scale, by the people who work the soils and tend the vines is a welcome contrast to the large mass-market houses with seemingly unlimited marketing budgets and unbalanced priorities.

When I visited growers, the sense of family was paramount. I was welcomed into homes, sat on couches and surrounded by family photos. At Gimonnet & Fils, in the village of Cuis, I spent an afternoon with Didier Gimonnet in the “living room” of the winery, the house where he and his brother Olivier grew up. The house is now utilized for business and holds the tasting room, but the warm and welcoming environment perfectly reflected the tone of the afternoon and the gracious nature of my host. Wine and life organically, naturally intertwined.

It can’t be stated enough – Champagne comes ONLY from the delineated Champagne region in France. Not all sparkling wine is Champagne – far from it. Other places around the world, including Canadian soils, craft fine sparkling wines (we share the 49th Parallel with the Champagne region). Producers can follow the same painstaking and lengthy process and use the same grapes – mainly Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – just like Champagne. But unless you’re one of the 300,000 or so specific vineyard plots in northeast France where it is legal to plant Champagne grapes on over 34,000 specifically delineated hectares, and then follow to the letter the AOC rules for aging and release, you’re simply not Champagne. So, don’t use the term, sil vous plait.

Growers Champagne by Numbers

Champagne vineyardToday 90% of all of the vineyards in Champagne are owned by independent growers – about 19,000 of them – and nearly 2000 of these growers make and sell their own wine, “Grower’s Champagne”, accounting for approximately 22% of the sales. The vast majority of exports however are controlled by the large négociants. The big houses own just 10% of the vineyard area of Champagne, but control a mind-boggling 97% of exports. Since these global powers own only a small fraction of the vineyard acreage collectively, sourcing grapes and wine is a major priority. The 10 largest houses account for over 50% of the region’s sales, which are considerable. In 2012, Champagne revenue was 4.4 billion Euros. Bubbles are big business, to be sure.

To keep on top, large houses have no choice but to send out ample consistent product to consumers on every corner of the globe. For NV champagne, the flagship product of the house, the consistency of that bottle (the ‘house style’) is of the utmost importance. From year to year, country to country and restaurant to restaurant, that bottle is meant to taste the same. One very large négociants I visited this fall boasted that the cork was popped on their NV champagne every 1.7 seconds somewhere around the world. I can see why Jancis Robinson was prompted to wonder “Is champagne a wine or a brand?”

The large houses, with millions of bottles lining kilometers of cellars, drive the lion’s share of that revenue, and have the budgets and backing for marketing their luxury product – one that has become somewhat of a standardized commodity. Grower Champagne, by contrast, is the opposite. Small growers, usually family owned and operated, are opting to produce their own Champagne rather than sell to the négociants. These small-scale wines are made and bottled from the grower’s own grapes, with an allowance of 5% of purchased grapes if required. While blending (of vintage, vineyards, grapes) is still very much part of the production, vintage variation is a given, and among many wine professionals, a bonus.

Since individual vineyard holdings are small, Grower Champagnes, by nature and default, focus on a certain region. Vineyards may be clustered around a single village, thus the Champagne reflects that village’s terroir. In contrast, for the large brands’ consistent house style, grapes may be blended from vineyard plots across the entire Champagne region.

Grower Champagnes are often released younger than their large house counterparts due in part to the greater financial resources that would be needed for long-term aging and storage. Since production is small, many growers can try new things and push the envelope a bit. Lower dosage wines are common, with zero dosage (brut nature, brut zéro or non-dosé) on trend. I tasted biodynamic champagne and single plot champagne – something that you wouldn’t see on a large-scale.

Differing aim, differing targets. One is looking for site (and vintage) expression, and the other consistency, no matter the year. Both producers are telling a story, but through entirely diverse plotlines, with vastly opposite budgets and completely divergent endings.

Recognizing Grower Champagne

Pierre Paillard Blanc de BlancsGrower Champagnes can be identified by the initials that appear before a number on the wine label. Look for a miniscule RM on the label, denoting Récoltant-Manipulant. This means the producer grows and makes Champagne from their own vines (minimum 95%). The initials NM (Négociant-Manipulant) appear on the labels of champagne producers that bottle and market champagne using grapes purchased from other growers. This is where the large Champagne houses fit in. CM (Coopérative-Manipulant) is a co-operative of growers who blend the product of their collective vineyards to sell under one or more brands. RC (Récoltant-Coopérateur) is a wine sourced from a single grower but made entirely for him by a co-operative winemaking facility. SR (Société de Récoltants) is a registered firm set up by two or more growers who share the same winery which they use to make wine to sell under their own label. This designation differs from a CM in that the growers almost always have significant involvement in the winemaking process. And MA (marque d’acheteur) is a buyer’s own brand, as for a supermarket, for example.

Since production of Grower Champagnes is much smaller, you often have to seek them out in specialty stores or savvy restaurants. Befriend the sommelier and ask questions – your hunt will be rewarded.

Two Producers to Seek Out

The appeal to these artisanal, personal Grower Champagnes lies in their sense of place and the growers who produce them. One such producer is Pierre Gimonnet & Fils. Quiet spoken, quick-witted and genuine in his hospitality, Didier Gimonnet explained how his grandfather, Pierre, began the winery after the Depression in the 1920’s ceased the sale of grapes. The family had been farming vines in the village of Cuis since the 1750’s, selling to négociants. When the market for grapes dried up with the economy, Pierre decided to produce his own wines. Pierre’s scientist son, Michel, oversaw the winery from 1955 to 1996, focusing specifically on vineyard sites and expressions of terroir as the benchmark for the winery.

Today, the house of Gimonnet is run by Pierre’s grandsons – Didier and Olivier. They own 30 hectares in total; 16 hectares are Premier Cru from the village of Cuis. A high percentage of their vineyards are Grand Cru (averaging 40 years in age) and cover 12 hectares in total, spread across the villages of Cramant, Chouilly, Oger and Aÿ. All of their wines go through primary fermentation and malolactic fermentation in stainless steel, and reserve wines are stored in bottle as opposed to tank (the norm in Champagne). This is done to slow down the evolution process and maintain freshness. As Didier explained to me, “We are not winemakers, we are the interpreters of the vineyard.” Lutte raisonnée guides their philosophy, old vines are treasured and vinification is “as simple as humanly possible.” He prefers fining over filtration, to respect the protein of the wine, and doesn’t employ battonage because he wants to produce delicate lees. “The origin of the grapes really determines the house style,” notes Didier, who clearly sees his role in conveying what is in the chalky, limestone mineral-driven Côte des Blancs. That’s not to say Didier wants to vinify a single plot on its own, forsaking quality for site. “In general, I am against a single plot, or single terroir Champagne for Gimonnet. Blends provide balance.” Therefore he sources grapes from across his 30 HA, basing his selections on the vintage and the wine he aims to create. All share the Gimonnet hallmarks – vivacity, crystalline purity, linear precision and stunning finesse of Chardonnay from the Cotes des Blanc.

Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Brut Blanc De Blancs 'cuis' 1er Cru

Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Brut Cuis 1er Cru NV

Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Gastronome Blanc De Blancs Brut

Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Brut “Gastronome” 2008

Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Brut "Fleuron" 2006, Champagne

Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Brut “Fleuron” 2006

Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Brut "Spécial Club" 2005

Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Brut “Spécial Club” 2005

I also spent an afternoon in the tasting room/storage facility/vine showcase/photo gallery winery with Quentin Paillard, a youthful and confident 8th generation of vine grower. Quentin carries on the family tradition as winemaker, along with this brother Antoine and father Benoît. The Paillard family has been growing vine and making wine in Bouzy since 1768, and making wine under the Pierre Paillard name for four generations. Situated in the heart of the Montagne de Reims, Bouzy is a renowned Grand Cru village for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Here they own all Grand Cru vineyards, 11HA in total, composed of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, exclusively cultivated on its own roots, and without clones. Sustainability governs the winemaking, malolactic fermentation is not blocked and natural ferments are encouraged. Quentin eloquently notes, “We think that a great wine is built in the vineyards and that the winemaker is an artist who uses creativity to elaborate the most beautiful cuvées.” The blends are key to the house’s unique style – rare because of their high percentage of Chardonnay in an area known primarily for Pinot Noir. Dozens of stainless steel tanks of all shapes and sizes fill the winery. As Quentin explains, they vinify each small plot separately, and then collectively decide what to blend and when, for each wine.

Chardonnay’s freshness acts as a perfect counterpart to the fuller, fruitier Pinot Noir typical of Bouzy’s deep soils and exposure. Pierre Paillard’s fuller, more powerful style is also due to extended aging on the lees and up to 10 years of bottle aging in the underground cellars prior to release. These wines are broodingly graceful and powerfully elegant, with a subtle underlying fruitiness throughout.

Quentin, rather humbly, typifies this new generation of Grower Champagne. Travelled, studied, inquisitive and inspired, he welcomes new ideas in winemaking while grounding everything he does in tradition, just like seven generations before him. There is a tight, collective culture across the entire Champagne region. When I chatted about whom else I was visiting on my trip, both Didier and Quentin knew every winemaker, every house, every position from the smallest operation up to the largest luxury producer. On some level they all discuss, collaborate and cooperatively share information – amazingly all while existing in a highly competitive market. I left a week in Champagne feeling certain that it is a wine, not a brand, and thankful to the growers for reminding me so.

Champagne Pierre Paillard N/V Grand Cru Brut

Champagne Pierre Paillard N/V Grand Cru Brut

Champagne Pierre Paillard N/V Grand Cru Brut Rosé

Champagne Pierre Paillard  N/V Grand Cru Brut Rosé

For more information on Grower Champagne, visit Les Champagnes de Vignerons

For more information on the Champagne region, visit

Editors Note: You can find complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

A Sparkling Countdown Part 2: Luxe Champagne
Complete list of recommended wines: Sparkling Countdown 2013

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The Successful Collector – Classics Taste and Buy Event

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

First Look and Top Picks

For premium wine lovers in Ontario, the Vintages Taste the Classics event – a preview of wines likely to be released in early-2014 as part of the Classics Collection (which can also be ordered by phone right away – 416-365-5767 or toll-free at 1-800-266-4764) – was long overdue. Held last week in the illustrious Governor’s Room at the Liberty Grand Entertainment Complex (Exhibition Place), a sold-out crowd of eager connoisseurs were on hand to taste over 65 wines from around the winegrowing world.

Though it may come as a surprise to some, the LCBO is surprisingly adept at hosting events like these. From outstanding wines to an overabundance of food accompaniments (offered to ensure that inebriated guests depart the event on a full stomach), my only bone to pick is that such events aren’t held with much greater frequency. For one thing, the public can’t seem to get enough of them, which would seem to indicate that most of the costs of arranging such shindigs are Taste the Classicsessentially recuperated. Just as important, the events should be more than just two and a half hours in duration so as to allow for enough time to taste all the wines properly. After all, the spittoon is a marvellous invention…

Here are a few selections from the November 2013 Taste the Classics event:


Domaine Christian Moreau 2011 Chablis Les Clos Grand Cru ($65.00) is a perfect reminder that some famous French wines remain underpriced. I’m actually quite serious: great Chablis is truly as every bit as fine as its counterparts in the Côte de Beaune (think Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet). The ’11 Les Clos will benefit from decanting if consumed young.

Château de Beaucastel 2011 Vieilles Vignes Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc ($159.00) shall likely breach the ‘perfection barrier’ over the next several years. Crafted from 100% Roussanne, this omnipotent offering is worth every penny, and will likely keep for well over thirty years. Decant vigorously if enjoyed at a more youthful stage of development.

Domaine Weinbach 2009 Cuvée St-Catherine Grand Cru Schlossberg Riesling ($74.00) is one of the greatest wines from this celebrated Alsatian producer. A dynamic combination of intensity and elegance, it’s wines like these that have been known to convert many a non-Riesling drinker to born-again status. Decanting is recommended.

Domaine Jean-Marc Morey 2010 Chassagne-Montrachet Les Caillerets Premier Cru ($77.00) is sourced from one of the greatest sites in Chassagne-Montrachet, a commune that deserves (nearly) as much praise its neighbour Puligny-Montrachet to the north. For white burgundy lovers, this is not to be missed. Decanting is advisable.


Casanova di Neri 2007 Brunello di Montalcino ($63.00) is one of the best bargains for premium wines around. An overachiever in more ways than one, Brunello lovers unfamiliar with the wines of Casanova di Neri are doing themselves a serious disservice by not ordering a case of the ’07 right away! Decanting is warranted.

Paulo Scavino 2005 Bric dël Fiasc Barolo ($123.00) comes from one of the top sites within the commune of Castiglione Faletto and is a truly sensational wine, despite hailing from a more challenging vintage. Drinking fabulously now, this will also probably keep to the end of the next decade. Decanting is highly recommended.

Penfolds 2008 Grange ($750.00) is the best, most perfect vintage since the indomitable ’98, for which chief winemaker Peter Gago ought to be immensely proud. A candidate for super-long cellaring, this will probably take around ten years just to fully harmonize, which means those wishing to drink this now ought to undertake a double-decanting to get the most out of it.

Domaine Antonin Guyon 2010 Corton Clos du Roy Grand Cru ($99.00) is a stellar red burgundy of exemplary finesse and breed. All too often, the best red Cortons are overlooked for more prestigious wines in the communes further north, from Vosne-Romanée to Gevrey-Chambertin. What a shame. Decanting is arguably unnecessary.

Domaine de la Janasse 2011 Vieilles Vignes Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($123.00) is the top bottling of this exquisite domaine. From a vintage many have already written off, this stunning Châteauneuf is not only drinking phenomenally now (good for people like me who enjoy rack of lamb for Christmas) but will keep for decades to come. Decanting is compulsory.

Jonata 2007 El Desafío de Jonata ($145.00) is an astonishing blend of 95% Cabernet Sauvignon, the rest Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. From one of the most lauded operations in the Santa Ynez Valley, the sheer decadence and copiousness of this wine is incredible. Decanting is compulsory.

Vega Sicilia 2003 Único ($424.00) comes from one of the most celebrated wineries in Spain. The flagship bottling of the establishment, the ’03 (from one of the hottest vintages on record) is what you’d expect: dramatically opulent, polished, and seductive. Drink now with absolute pleasure of hold for a few decades. Decanting is obligatory.

Castello dei Rampolla 2007 d’Alceo ($195.00) is the flagship label of this exemplary winery, delivering incredible sophistication and structure. A blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Petit Verdot, this is a very special Super Tuscan of glorious stylization and stature. Perhaps a tad unwieldy at the present stage, decanting is essential should patient cellaring prove untenable.

Click here to view my entire list of Classics previews

Wish They Were Here:

Champagne tasting in Chicago:

Comité interprofessionnel du vin de ChampagneOn 29 October 2013, I attended a large-scale champagne function hosted by the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) in downtown Chicago. A one-day trip to the Windy City to delve through copious quantities of champagne. What was I thinking? Did I not realize how tiring such an adventure would leave me, to say nothing of the effects of systematically examining several dozen different samples of bubbly before flying back home? Were it not for spittoons (used almost exclusively), I might not have made it back in one piece, it was that tiring a jaunt.

In fact, the day (at time of writing) is not even over. With half an hour left until boarding and nothing productive to do, one might question my decision to begin this column under a cloud of acute mental and physical exhaustion. But efficient use of time knows few obstacles, plus many of the greatest wines of the day remain fresh in my mind.

To get the ball rolling: a luncheon held at NoMI at the Park Hyatt. This was my first face-to-face meeting with Sam Heitner, head of the Champagne Bureau US (a subsidiary of the CIVC) and an inveterate, Templar-like defender of champagne labelling laws. According to Heitner (whose last name is eerily similar to my own), the name of ‘champagne’ has been misleadingly used on labels of sparkling wine produced outside of Champagne for decades. For Heitner and many other likes him (I count myself among them), this has been a considerable detriment to the quality of sparkling wine produced in the actual winegrowing region of Champagne—in other words, that which is the genuine article.

As the main promotional body of the region, the CIVC has worked tirelessly to correct this, painstakingly negotiating with government authorities worldwide to ensure that only sparkling wine produced in Champagne is labelled as such. Taken as a whole, their successes have been plentiful, as increasing numbers of countries throughout the world (especially those producing sparkling wine) have come to legally recognize that the integrity of ‘champagne’ is unequivocally dependent on the adequate protection of its namesake.

Canada is set to become one such nation. As of 1 January 2014, Canadian winegrowers will no longer be permitted to use the name ‘champagne’ on any wine label, no matter how qualitatively sound (or poor) the contents of any given bottle might be. This means ‘President Champagne’ or ‘Baby Canadian Champagne’ will be going the way of the dodo, or at very least relabeled. As for the increasing number of Canadian growers nowadays producing ever-better quality sparkling wine via the ‘Classic Method’ (the same method by which champagne is produced), such wines will be mostly unaffected by the new rules coming into effect. Virtually none of them use the name ‘champagne’ on their labels, anyway.

Here are a few champagne selections:


Bollinger 2004 La Grande Année Brut ($139.00) is an absolute darling of a champagne, representing one of my top choices from this exceptional vintage. A blend of 66% Pinot Noir and 34% Chardonnay, this will keep with little fuss over the next dozen years or more, but why wait?

Louis Roederer NV Premier Brut ($63.95) might not have been available to taste at the Classics event, though it unquestionably remains one of the best buys around. From the same house that produces Cristal, this has long been one of my favourite ‘standby’ champagnes.

Click here to view my entire list of champagnes



Editors Note: You can find Julian Hitner’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

Julian’s VSO Wines
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The Successful Collector, by Julian Hitner: Wine education for us all – Visiting Champagne

Just a few remarks:

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Though it’s been almost a month since I visited Champagne, my impressions of the world’s greatest sparkling wine-growing region remain as vivid as the day when my outbound train departed from Reims.

Located at one of the most historically significant crosswords in northeastern France, it was only after the Second World War that Champagne truly began to enjoy an uninterrupted era of peace and prosperity. This represents a stark contrast to decades and centuries past, when Champagne was plagued by everything from continual warfare to almost unstoppable vineyard diseases. Nowadays, Champagne may be rightly considered one of the most prosperous, most illustrious wine-growing regions of France, replete with delightful villages, meticulously tended vines, and an inimitable product of which the civilized world cannot seem to get enough.

But what is abundance without a gracious set of persons to take full advantage of  it? This is what makes the Champenois so special, in that despite the obvious prosperity their region enjoys, they have not allowed their success to go to their heads. On the contrary: like their counterparts in Burgundy and elsewhere, the Champenois are both unassuming and generous, outwardly proud of their wares yet conscious of the fact that much depends on the successful utilization of their terroir and the importance of demystifying the processes by which their wines are produced. In my opinion, this most accurately describes the vast majority of inhabitants I encountered throughout my travels in this part of France.

This notwithstanding, of all the facets related to the remarkable quality of sparkling champagne, perhaps the most under-appreciated facet the region continues to suffer from—at least from the standpoint of casual wine lovers—is the entirely incorrect notion that champagne is a one-trick pony. Quite the contrary: the wine-growing region of Champagne doesn’t offer just one type, or qualitative level, of sparkling wine but many. From multiple sub-regions to wide variations in blends, champagne may be produced in a vast assortment of styles. To taste them all is one of life’s special pursuits.

Such are several of the most vivid impressions formulated during my recent Champagne sojourn, of which I could wax poetic for hours. But it’s getting late, and it’s almost time for claret. Can’t have champagne every day, though not for lack of desire…

Julian Hitner

Here are some of Julian’s Champagne reviews for wines that are still available in stores:

Dom Pérignon Brut Champagne 2003Krug Grande Cuvée Brut ChampagneCristal Brut Champagne 2004Dom Pérignon Brut Champagne 2003: Strikingly opulent and seductive, at this point the recently released 2003 Dom Pérignon is far more outgoing than its more tightly wound predecessor the ’02. Pale lime in colour, this glorious bottling showcases magnificent, absorbing scents of fragrant lime-infused biscuits and French toast; gently giving way to white flowers, lemon citrus, ginger, orange zest, sugar powder, and exotic spices. Incredibly complex, delivering extraordinary, crisp yet multilayered frothy fruit, balanced acidity, and an astonishing hint of lemon/lime citrus, biscuits, and white flowers on the finish. Generous by Moët standards, along with the ’00 this should serve as a stunning stopgap while the more classic vintages of late come into their own. Now-2030++.

Krug Grande Cuvée Brut Champagne: My second (or third) note for the Krug Grand Cuvée in 2011, each new tasting note serves as a valuable reminder of how stupendous this particular champagne is. This recording: pale-light greenish-straw in colour, as alluring and decadent as ever, exhibiting sensational scents of resounding spice-infused French toast, white flowers, lime, biscuits, ginger, jasmine, vanilla, pistachios, minerals, and grapefruit. Extremely complex, with mesmerizingly pure, polished fruit, excellent acidity, and an outstanding, lasting hint of French toast and Asian spice on the finish. Simply put, at least to me, a champagne of unbelievable structure, finesse, style, and richness. The ultimate non-vintage collector’s bubbly! Now-2032++ (much longer than previous estimates).

Cristal Brut Champagne 2004: The flagship champagne of Roederer and unquestionably one of the greatest sparkling wines in the world, the 2004 Cristal is a masterpiece that near-flawlessly combines subtlety and complexity with dimension and richness. Pale-light straw-lime in colour, the wine reveals an abundant array of aromatics, starting off with extraordinary toasted biscuits and pistachios that shortly give way to lemon, brioche, yellow pears, cream crackers, white flowers, and a hint of jasmine and spice. Extremely complex, with fantastic, generously rich fruit, marvellous acidity, and a wondrously crisp, luminous hint of citrus-driven biscuits on the finish. Classic, glorious Cristal of superlative focus, personality, generosity, and refinement. Collectors: consider yourselves warned. Now-2036++.

Bonnaire Blanc De Blancs Brut Grand Cru Champagne 2004Lallier Grande Réserve Grand Cru ChampagneLallier Grande Réserve Grand Cru Champagne: Since I began tasting wines from Lallier about a year ago, I have been extremely impressed, with the Grand Cru Grande Réserve adding yet another feather to their cap. Light straw-lime in colour, it exhibits beautifully rich, intense notes of brioche and French toast, switching to biscuits, lemon, ripe pears, shortbread, and vanilla. Complex, with unusually sumptuous, frothy fruit, polished acidity, and a lingering, elegant hint of French toast and pears on the finish. Delicious, rather profound, and undeniably excellent. Now-2018+.

Bonnaire Blanc De Blancs Brut Grand Cru Champagne 2004: My first recorded note from here, the 2004 Vintage Blanc de Blancs, sourced entirely from Grand Cru vineyards, exceeds expectations. Pale lime in colour with a touch of straw, it opts for stylish, enticing scents of biscuits, pears, white flower petals, fresh lemon citrus, gingerroot, and spice. Complex, featuring excellent, finesse-oriented fruit, balanced acidity, and a superlative hint of pure brioche and pears on the finish. Exquisite mid-weight disposition, structure, and harmony. Now-2019++.

For more reviews visit our Critics profile page: Julian Hitner

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Jingle Fizz: Your Guide to Last Minute New Year’s Sparklers

Dashing down the street  ♪♫♫ In your one horse Hyundai  ♫♪♪♫ 
To the LCBO we go  ♫♫♪♪♫  Honking all the way ♪♪♫ 
Hear the cashiers sing  ♪♫♫ Making their New Year’s bright ♪♫♫ 
Oh what fun it really ain’t  ♫♫♪♪  To buy bubbly for tonight…

John Szabo at  work

John Szabo at work

You have to get to the LCBO yourself, and endure the line-ups. We can’t do much about that (except to dangle the sugar plum of how nice it would be to buy your bubbly at your supermarket instead). We can however help you select wines of good taste and good value, which is right in our wheelhouse. Below four WineAlign critics – John Szabo MS (pictured here), Sara d’Amato, Steve Thurlow and David Lawrason – have assembled their bubbly picks for New Year’s Eve. They are arranged by type/price category and were available at the LCBO on December 28.

Champagne (Over $35)

Champagne can only originate in the Champagne region of France, and generations of wily marketers have made it “the one to buy” when a statement of prosperity underlies the buying decision. So for those toasting to a happy and prosperous New Year, here are four fine ‘champers’:

Taittinger Brut Réserve ChampagneBonnaire Blanc De Blancs Brut Grand Cru Champagne 2004Bonnaire Blanc De Blancs Brut Grand Cru Champagne 2004
Champagne, France
$59.95 Vintages #721035

Here’s a classy, complex, vintage blanc de blancs grower champagne (Bonnaire owns and farms their own vineyards – they do not purchase any fruit), with notably toasty-caramel-honeyed notes and depth and power well above the mean. The palate is fullish and well balanced, with superior length. Fine champagne all around. Tasted November 2012. John Szabo,

Taittinger Brut
Champagne, France
$59.95  Vintages #814723

This classic, elegant, concise and tightly knit style is often a hit with women and perfect for an elegant soirée. With an aromatic and enveloping nose, the palate boasts notable verve and a playful interplay of savory, sweet and sour. Finish is quite dry with lingering notes of white peach, persimmon and sea salt. Sara d’Amato,

Louis Roederer Brut Premier ChampagneNicolas Feuillatte Brut ChampagneLouis Roederer Brut Premier
Champagne, France
$63.95 Vintages Essentials #268771

A beautiful delicate champagne with fine aromas and flavours. Expect baked apple and pear fruit with toast, ginger, white peach and vanilla notes. It is light on the palate with well integrated soft acidity and excellent length. Fine as an aperitif but also consider with delicately flavoured poultry and fish courses or pastry. This is the sale price until January 6. Steve Thurlow,

Nicolas Feuillatte Brut
Champagne, France
$ 44.55 LCBO #537605

Nicolas Feuillate is one of the great business success stories of Champagne in modern times. In 30 years it has grown from being a small estate to a co-op of over 5,000 growers and the third largest selling Champagne in the world. This “basic” non-vintage Brut spent the minimum three years ageing on the lees, with a fairly simple fruit-driven aroma of pear/apple, with a hint of vanilla and very mild yeasty notes. It’s light bodied, quite crisp, lemony and fresh with good to very good length. Serve well chilled as an all-purpose aperitif and seafood bubbly. Last Tasted November 2012.  David Lawrason,

Ontario Sparkling ($20 to $30)
With cool climate growing conditions similar to Champagne, as well as limestone based soils, Ontario vintners are moving quickly to create excellent sparklers made  from the same grape varieties (chardonnay and pinot noir) in the same ‘methode champenoise’ (second fermentation in the bottle). And the best Ontario bubblies are still cheaper than the cheapest Champagnes.

Angels Gate Archangel Chardonnay Brut 2010Cave Spring Blanc De Blancs BrutCave Spring Blanc De Blancs Brut
Niagara Escarpment, Ontario
$29.95 LCBO #213983

The Cave Spring Blanc de Blancs Brut (traditional method) delivers significant depth, complexity and minerality, on top of pure crisp citrus fruit. The palate is supremely well-balanced, crisply acidic, and the finish lovely and lingering. A really lovely local bubbly that enters into the realm of fine non-vintage champagne blanc de blancs. Tasted October 2012. John Szabo,

Angels Gate Archangel Chardonnay Brut 2010
Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
$18.95 LCBO #227009

It is difficult to beat the price/quality ratio on this local gem. Produced in the traditional method, this blanc de blancs is surprisingly rich with elegant toasty notes and creamy mousse. Celebrating ten years in the business, Angels Gate continues to create well-priced, honest sparkling wines. Sara d’Amato,

Henry Of Pelham Cuvée Catharine BrutTrius BrutHenry Of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Brut
Niagara Peninsula, Canada
$29.95 LCBO #217521

A serious sparkling wine from Ontario with a delicate nose of lightly toasted bread, apple and pear fruit with baked lemon and floral complexity. It comes with a new label and is much improved. After the delicate nose, it is surprisingly rich on the palate with lots of ripe fruit balanced by soft acidity and a mineral layer. Very good length. Try with pastry nibbles or smoked fish. Steve Thurlow,

Trius Brut
$24.95 LCBO #284539

This has been a consistent gold medal performer in national wine shows. It’s pale yellow in colour with a piquant, fresh, well integrated nose of dried apple, hazelnut and lemon. It’s light bodied, dry with very good acid grip, and at last tasting it seemed to have more acid and piquancy, with a firm, lemony, dry and nutty finish. The length is very good to excellent. The underground bubbly storage cellar is among the largest in Canada and an impressive visit. This is also available at Andrew Peller’s Vineyards wine stores. David Lawrason,

Other Countries (up to $20)
Under $20 sparkling wine can be successfully made anywhere in the world, although cool climates that provide natural acidity are generally better. The grapes become more varied and sometimes localized (as in Italy and Spain), and the wines are often ‘bubblized” by re-fermenting in a tank (the charmat method). But some good traditional method champenoise sparklers can also be found at this price.

Ruhlmann Signature Jean Charles Brut Crémant d'AlsaceBisol Crede Brut Prosecco Di Valdobbiadene SuperioreBisol Crede Brut Prosecco Di Valdobbiadene Superiore
Veneto, Italy
$19.95 Vintages #297242

Always a full step above the mean, Bisol delivers proseccos of superior refinement and class. Although the Crede is one of the “entry level” bubblies from the house, it has marvelous perfume, classic for the variety, full of fragrant pear and green apple, lemon blossom and fresh sweet green herbs. The palate is fullish, creamy yet fresh, with excellent intensity and vinosity. This is certainly priced in the premium range for the category, but well worth it in my view. Terrific length. John Szabo,

Ruhlmann Signature Jean Charles Brut Crémant d’Alsace
Alsace, France
$19.95 Vintages #297853

As featured in my latest holiday recommendations, this knock-out crémant made by the traditional method champenoise is ever worthy of a festive celebration and won’t break the bank. Bready, toasty, chalky, earthy, creamy flavours prevail on the palate of this richly compelling Alsatian find. Sara d’Amato,

Yellowglen Pink SparklingSegura Viudas Brut Reserva CavaYellowglen Pink Sparkling
$11.95 LCBO #15867

Every time I try this wine I think that it is a pretty amazing everyday bubble! This blend of pinot noir and chardonnay over delivers for the money. An orangey pink with fine bubbles that persist well with ample aromas of cherry, toffee and bread with a hint of stewed strawberry. The palate is fairly rich with an air of elegance and the finish holds focus and lingers for a long time. Don’t over-chill or you will miss the fruit and aromas. Steve Thurlow,

Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Cava
$14.25 LCBO #216960

This Spanish cava made from local grape varieties by the traditional method continues as one of the best buys in sparkling wine – and it has been for years!  It displays classic olive, green pear and lime aromas. It’s light to mid-weight, brisk and lively, with a nervy centre and some softness on the edges. Chill well. David Lawrason,

From all of us at WineAlign, have a safe and happy new year.   ♫♪♪♫ 

The complete list: New Year’s Sparklers 2012

Oggi Pinot Grigio Delle Venezia 2011

Rosehill Wine Cellars

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Margaret Swaine’s Wine Picks: Lovely bubbles

This month, Vintages has released some lovely bubbles, an ideal way to toast TIFF. Find these picks via

Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve Champagne
$54.95 (93 Points)
Fleshy, complex and deep, this house style is achieved by the use of 40% older reserve wines in the blend of one third each of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Masculine and structured, it has toasted brioche and apricot flavours and a creamy texture. A citrus backbone keeps it vibrant. A bubbly for gourmands.

Piper Heidsieck Brut Champagne 2004
$75.95 (95 Points)
Classic, feminine, poised and fresh, achieved by a careful selection of pinot noir (50% of this vintage’s blend; the rest is chardonnay) and a smaller percentage of youngish reserve wines. Elegant, harmonious and dynamic, its bouquet is blossoms and minerals. The fine- textured palate is lively with crunchy Asian pear and citrus confit flavours. A dazzler.

Domaine de Vaugondy Brut Vouvray
$16.95 (89 Points)
If Champagne is too pricey, this 100% chenin blanc grape bubbly from France’s Loire Valley is a great alternative. Made in the traditional method of second fermentation in the bottle, it’s pale straw in colour with good varietal flavours of quince, pear and citrus. Assertive with fine bubbles and floral and mineral notes, it has personality to spare.

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for September 1st 2012

A-List Champagne for the TIFF; Resto Wine Lists: Creative Expression or Esoteric Alienation? Top Ten Smart Buys.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Since you’re probably not even reading this, unless there’s WiFi on the dock or at your campsite, I’ll be brief. In fact, I’m camping, and would rather hear from you instead of writing a lot. If late summer leisure allows extra-curricular thoughts to displace your common concerns, I’d like to know what you think about restaurant wine lists.

There’s a sea of change underway across the city and across North America, and wine lists have never been so diverse and unique. But maybe in some cases they’ve become too esoteric? Do you want comfortable old friends or an introduction to someone new when you dine out? Let me set it up for you to comment below.

I’ve also got a couple of A-list champagnes at B-movie prices (relatively), and the Top Ten End of Summer Smart Buys from the September 1st VINTAGES release. Happy camping.

Smart Buys

Marimar Estate La Masía Don Miguel Vineyard ChardonnayAntica ChardonnaySéguinot Bordet Vaillons ChablisSince we’ve already established that it’s cool again to like chardonnay: here’s a trio of fine examples:

2010 Séguinot-Bordet Vaillons Chablis 1er Cru ($29.95)
2010 Antica Chardonnay Napa Valley ($35.95)
2008 Marimar Estate la Masía don Miguel Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma County ($25.95)

All three are regional classics, with an extra degree of class and balance at fair prices. But if provenance and recognizability are trumped by extreme value for you, than check out the following:

2010 Château Ka Source Blanche Bekaa Valley, Lebanon ($15.95)
2010 Jean Perrier & Fils Abymes Cuvée Prestige, Savoie, France ($12.95)
2010 Tbilvino Tsinandali Dry White Kakheti, Georgia ($12.95)

Château Ka Source BlancheJean Perrier & Fils Abymes Cuvée PrestigeTbilvino Tsinandali Dry White

These won’t set the world on fire (when’s the last time the world was ablaze from a $13 wine?), but are well worth a look for everyday-delicious wines from not-so-everyday places and grapes.

Also in the top ten you’ll find a solid, neither overly traditional nor modern Rioja (this one’s juuust right), a meaty, savory southern French red, an exceptionally classy pinot blanc for less than $14, and a fine local Riesling made by (labeled under the name of) a Canadian sports hero.

Check them out here.

And How Would You Like That Wine List, Sir?

From the days of house red and white, to comfortable lists with recognizable regions, grapes and brand names, to lists filled with esoteric, limited production wines from obscure places or virtually extinct varieties known only to a small handful of sommeliers, the restaurant wine list has undergone almost as dramatic a revolution as menus have since the bad old seventies. Many voices, pro and con, have weighed in on the subject, particularly in the United States where the likes of Jon Bonné in a recent article for the San Francisco Chronicle and Eric Asimov for the New York Times have examined the development of wine lists in recent years (a change that has been mirrored here in Canada, albeit to a lesser extent thanks to our archaic, diversity-hindering monopolistic system of alcohol distribution), and raised some interesting questions about the direction many wine directors are taking.

In the most recent rounds of thoughtful criticism, both Bonné and Asimov take New York Post writer Steve Cuozzo to task for his controversial rant entitled Sour Grapes, railing against unfamiliar wine lists. Cuozzo begins his discourse: “Wine is one of dining’s, and life’s, great pleasures. Yet it can seem anything but when an esoteric or pretentious list leaves you stumped over what to order. You’re at the mercy of a sommelier determined to teach you a thing or two, when all you want is a nice, affordable Bordeaux to go with chicken and summer greens.”

He continues: “Ordering wine can be a nuisance even in the easiest case. You’re making a pricey decision that will affect everyone’s meal. You poke through the list under guns of time and noise in an under-lit room while thirsty friends beg you to get on with it. Seasoned diners can cope. What’s tougher is when a restaurant sets out to prove a point with its “wine program,” a strategy that results in a list that’s 100-percent inscrutable.”

Cuozzo’s argument amounts essentially to the belief that diversity beyond a handful of well-recognized grapes and brand names, is a hindrance for diners. So the real question is, should all restaurants offer something for everyone, or, are some restaurants smart to stay true to a unique vision, even if the inscrutable vision will likely alienate some guests?

Asimov counters Cuozzo’s argument with: “Restaurants are not intent on annoying people. Even the proudest, most rigid chef wants you to share a vision, not walk away unhappy. I treasure restaurants that do not pander as long as they succeed on their own terms. The same questions apply to wine. Must a restaurant offer bottles that even the most timid diner will recognize? Or can a wine list reflect a restaurant’s best conception of itself, no matter how unconventional? The world is dominated by the ordinary and the mass-market. Most restaurants, even in New York City, conform to a mainstream vision of food and wine. For that reason alone we should celebrate the departures, not feel threatened by them. If a restaurant is so unorthodox that you feel discomfited, plenty of more conventional choices beckon.”

The Wine List PleaseIt’s interesting to note that discussions of mainstream versus innovation and diversity used to be centered on food menus. Most reasonable people seemed ready to accept a chef’s right to remain uncompromisingly true to his or her culinary vision. The ultra successful Terroni Group of Restaurants (including five in Toronto and one, soon to be two, in Los Angeles) is a case in point. Owner Cosimo Mammoliti is infamous for his no modifications, no substitution policy. They wont even cut your pizza for you at Terroni. Why? “We simply want our customers to have the experience of eating those dishes in the same way that they’ve been enjoyed for generations” is the answer. The implication is that if you don’t want to eat what Italians have been eating for generations, there are plenty of other restaurants you can go to. (Incidentally, the wine list is also filled with inscrutable wines you won’t find anywhere else, since Terroni imports dozens of Italian wines exclusively, which doesn’t seem to deter diners from drinking.) Terroni’s success vindicates their no mods policy.

So why should wine directors and sommeliers be accorded any less latitude to express a vision than a chef/owner? If it doesn’t work, they won’t be in business for long in any case.

The Canadian dining landscape is ever more interesting. Young chefs who have trained under our most celebrated culinary artists are opening restaurants at an alarming (comforting) rate, adding culinary multiplicity to the dining scene of myriad neighborhoods. It’s virtually a pre-requisite for survival in the hyper-competitive market. And so many young, and seasoned, sommeliers are seeking to reflect that diversity and distinctiveness with the beverage program.

So, the question is, are you as afraid of unknown wines as you are of unknown ingredients? Or is dining out an adventure in discovery? Let me know what you think.

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Oxymoron: Value Champagne for TIFF

Cristal Brut ChampagneCharles Heidsieck Brut Réserve ChampagneVINTAGES is splashing out (or re-splashing) on champagne for the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival, which runs from September 6th – 16th. After all, champagne is a virtual sine qua non for the A-list beat. You, too, may have champagne wishes and caviar dreams, but reluctantly live in reality. And for you, I have two “value” options from the release. In lieu of the predictable names on offer, namely Dom Pérignon 2003 (which was not available to taste), and the really very fine 2005 Cristal Brut Champagne (any wine at nearly $300 could scarcely be considered a value), head instead to the Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve Champagne for $54.95. This has long been one of my favorite non-vintage champagnes with vintage-like quality, and might rightly fall in the value realm. The secret is a significant proportion of reserve (old) wines, which gives the Charles its distinctly toasty, fully mature profile. Add to that a rich, creamy, dry but generous, mouth filling impression packed with peach cobbler and toasted oat flavour, and you’ve got a serious bubbly that could easily pass for one of the pricier labels.

Piper Heidsieck Brut ChampagneVery nearly as good but stylistically contrarian is the 2004 Piper Heidsieck Brut Champagne ($75.95). The same company owns both Heidsiecks, and there’s a purposeful division of style between labels: Piper is the lighter, fresher, more citrusy bubbly, and the 2004 vintage is true to form. I particularly liked the rare combination of power and elegance. And again, considering the price of most vintage champagne, this could almost be considered in the value category. For A-listers, this would be embarrassingly cheap.

From the September 1st, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Champagne Picks


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS


Wolf Blass Premium Selection Shiraz

The Wine Establishment - Le Nez deu Vin

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The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Collecting French Wine – Part II (Rhône and Champagne) ~ Saturday, May 26th, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Collectors and top regions of France: For most French wine collectors, the most prestigious winegrowing regions of France are Bordeaux and Burgundy. What follows is more open to debate. Some would say the Rhône Valley takes the bronze medal, others Champagne.

Of the two, which is better is difficult to say, the wines of each region are so different stylistically. The Rhône, divided between north and south, plays host to some of the greatest full-bodied red wines of France, complimented by an increasing smattering of fine whites. Champagne, on the other hand, while coming across as a one-trick pony, is anything but. The world’s undisputed mecca for premium sparklers and one of the most addictive types of wine in existence, to understand and appreciate the many nuances between one great champagne and another is one of life’s noble pleasures.

And yet, it’s probably a safe bet that most French collectors have far more Rhône wine in their cellars than champagne, especially when considering the heightened price of a standard bottle of bubbly. Sheer selection is another factor. There are far more Rhône wines of different type than those in Champagne. On this score, the Rhône even has vague similarities to Bordeaux.

Guigal La TurqueIn the Northern Rhône, where Syrah is the only permitted red grape, there are four appellations of critical worth. Closest to Lyon are the steep slopes of the celebrated Côte-Rôtie, where Syrah may be blended with up to 20% Viognier—in reality most producers use much less. Combining ruggedness with finesse and long-term aging potential, the most lauded examples tend to hail from the Côte Blonde and Côte Brune, of which the three single-vineyard labels of Marcel Guigal are must-haves: La Mouline, La Landonne, and La Turque. Aside from Guigal, other outstanding domaines/négociants include Gerin, René Rostaing, Chapoutier, Joseph Jamet, and Bernard Burgaud. Other respected operations include Ogier, Jean-Michel Stephan, Clusel-Roch, Château de St-Cosme (Gigondas-based), Tardieu-Laurent, and Gilles Barge.

Georges Vernay CondrieuSouth of Côte-Rôtie is Condrieu. On the verge of extinction fifty years ago, the speciality here is Viognier, a grape which has practically exploded in popularity over the past fifteen years. Though nowadays planted in just about every major winegrowing nation on Earth, few would dispute that those of Condrieu are best, particularly those sourced from single vineyards. Top producers, many of which also make excellent wines from neighbouring Côte-Rôtie, are Georges Vernay, Guigal, René Rostaing, Pierre Gaillard, Yves Cuilleron, and François Villard. There are at least several others, along with Château Grillet, a single-estate AOC located within Condrieu.

Chave HermitageFurther south, skipping St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage for the moment, we come to Hermitage. Crafted to 100% Syrah, for both collectors and enthusiasts red Hermitage is one of the most esteemed wines in France. Covering a mere 134ha and comprising just over 12 different vineyards (or climats), Hermitage is to Syrah what Chambertin is to Pinot Noir: the Old World-wide benchmark for practically every other wine of similarity. With more depth, concentration, structure, vitality, and durability than most other wines, great Hermitage is a force to be reckoned with.

Even the whites are monumental. Crafted from Roussanne and Marsanne, the best examples can keep just as long as the reds, in some cases longer. Top producers of red and white versions include Jean-Louis Chave, Chapoutier, Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Marc Sorrel, Guigal, Tardieu-Laurent, and Ferraton. Other producers worth noting are Domaine du Colombier, Caves de Tain-l’Hermitage, plus a few others.

Similar to Hermitage are the reds of Cornas. Connected to the southernmost boundaries of St-Joseph on the left bank of the Rhône, only red wines crafted to 100% Syrah are produced here. Like Hermitage, these are powerful, immensely ageworthy wines, crafted from steep slopes and differentiated primarily by their heightened ruggedness and slightly less sophisticated disposition. Oftentimes reasonably priced, top names, many with plots in other appellations, include Thierry Allemand, Auguste Clape, Jean-Luc Colombo, Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Tardieu-Laurent, Vincent Paris (formerly Robert Michel), and Courbis.

While these are the Northern Rhône’s four most prestigious appellations, the best of Crozes-Hermitage and St-Joseph should not be overlooked. In both cases, Syrah is the only permitted red grape, though a small percentage of Marsanne and/or Roussanne may be added. A small amount of white wine from these two grapes is also made. In all, the best examples make for sturdy, increasingly exceptional wines. Once again, top producers/négociants often have plots in other appellations: Pierre Gaillard, Yves Cuilleron, François Villard, Domaine Combier, Courbis, Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Chapoutier, Guigal, Tardieu-Laurent, Gilles Robin, and Pierre et Jérôme Coursodon.

Beaucastel Hommage a Jacques PerrinCompared to the Northern Rhône, the Southern Rhône is far larger, more diverse, and offers just as many collectables. Here, Châteauneuf-du-Pape leads the way, where thirteen grape varietals are permitted: Grenache (plus Grenache Blanc), Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Vaccarèse, Counoise, Muscardin, Terret Noir, Roussanne, Picpoul (plus Picpoul Blanc), Clairette, Bourboulenc, and Picardin. For the most part however, the classic blend is Grenache (predominant), Syrah, and Mourvèdre.

Chateau La NertheAlong with Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, Châteauneuf is the most lauded appellation in the Rhône Valley, its top reds among the most absorbing, most powerful offerings in France. Even the whites can be excellent. Top producers, some with holdings in other appellations, include Clos des Papes, Château de Beaucastel, Château Rayas, Château de la Nerthe, Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, Henri Bonneau, Domaine de la Janasse, Domaine Grand Veneur, and Domaine Bois de Boursan. Others to watch out for are Chapoutier, Tardieu-Laurent, Clos du Mont Olivet, Domaine Chante-Cigale, Domaine Clos du Caillou, Domaine de la Vieille Julienne, Domaine de Sénéchaux, and a whole host of others.

Domaine Santa Duc Prestige des Hautes GarriguesAfter Châteauneuf, Gigondas has spent the last forty years carving out a remarkable reputation for itself. Like its more illustrious neighbour, the blend is a classic combination of Grenache (max. 80%) accompanied by a minimum of 15% Syrah and Mourvèdre, plus other grapes. Indeed, the best wines nowadays give top Châteauneufs a run for their money. The list for top producers, many with plots in other appellations, is growing: Domaine de Santa Duc, Château de St-Cosme, Domaine Raspail-Ay, Domaine du Cayron, and Domaine St-Gayan. Other producers/négociants of note include Perrin & Fils (Château Beaucastel), Tardieu-Laurent, Domaine du Pesquier, Guigal, and Domaine Brusset.

Rounding out the trio of top Southern Rhône appellations is Vacqueyras. Granted AOC status in 1990, Vacqueyras has become something of a hotbed for both collectors and general enthusiasts in search of great value wines with very good concentration and aging potential. The blend is similar to Gigondas: Grenache (predominant) paired with Syrah, Mourvèdre, and sometimes Cinsault. Several producers, both local and from other communes, to look up are Perrin & Fils, Tardieu-Laurent, Clos des Cazaux, and Domaine de la Monadière.

Domaine Gourt de MoutensAfter these appellations, premium choices for collectors become sparser; yet there are several other appellations on the rise with increasing numbers of serious producers. In most places, the GSM-blend is largely the same. In Rasteau (granted full AOC status in 2010), producers like Domaine Gourt de Mautens, Château La Soumade, and Domaine des Escaravailles are turning heads. The appellation is also known for its excellent Vin Doux Naturels, fortified wines crafted entirely from Grenache. Other appellations collectors may want to explore are Vinsobres, Beaumes de Venise (most famously known for its Muscat-based fortifieds), and the best Côtes du Rhône-Villages, such as Cairanne (also known for great Vin Doux Naturels), Plan de Dieu, and Massif d’Uchaux.

But then there’s Champagne, unique among French winegrowing regions in that there is but one speciality: sparkling wine. Were it to end there, Champagne would probably be lost in a sea of more diverse regions in other parts of France.

Dom PerignonBut Champagne is special. The wine is special, and the reason relates to overall quality. While many other places in France and around the world make sparkling wine, the yardstick for effervescent supremacy is set by the best bottlings of champagne. Combined with its status as the drink of choice for celebration, there is simply no other sparkling wine that enjoys the same pre-eminence and esteem.

Louis RoedererAt the top of the pyramid, champagnes known as ‘vintage cuvée prestige’ are the priciest. Aged for at least 36 months on the lees (oftentimes many times longer), these are the top bottlings produced by the best houses, the most famous versions synonymous with luxury, indulgence, and affluence. The most renowned of these include Dom Pérignon (Moët & Chandon), Cristal (Louis Roederer), La Grande Dame (Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin), Sir Winston Churchill (Pol Roger), Belle Epoque (Perrier-Jouët), and Comte de Champagne (Taittinger). Other equally esteemed, sometimes pricier, items include Clos de Mesnil and Clos d’Ambonnay (Krug), RD and Vieilles Vignes Françaises (Bollinger), Dom Ruinart (Ruinart), Grand Siècle (Laurent-Perrier), Blanc de Millénaire (Charles Heidsieck), Cuvée William Deutz (Deutz), and Cuvée Paradis (Alfred Gratien). While there are others, these are widely considered the crème de la crème, capable of lasting at least several decades, sometimes much longer.

Yet vintage champagne often represents better value for money. Produced by the same houses with the same minimum time on the lees (again typically a great deal longer), there is a growing tendency to overlook vintage champagne in favour of either ‘house’ wines (more on this in a moment) and vintage cuvée prestige. Personally, I can think of no greater sacrilege, as the best vintage champagnes are often just as compelling as their pricier, more illustrious counterparts. In addition to those already mentioned, great houses to seek out are Jacquesson, Billecart-Salmon, Jacques Selosse, Gosset, Drappier, Henriot, Joseph Perrier, Bruno Paillard, and Lanson. And let’s not forget Salon (owned by Laurent-Perrier), one of the most luxurious, priciest champagnes of them all. Not surprisingly, wines of this calibre can keep for at least a decade, sometimes two or three times as long.

Jacques Selosse InitialeThen come the ‘house’ wines, non-vintage bottlings that represent the vast majority of all champagne produced, aged at least 15 months on the lees. Normally popped open shortly after purchase, the choice of producers is enormous. With a growing number of small growers nowadays bottling their own wine instead of selling their grapes to the large houses, selection has never been greater, not just non-vintage versions but single-year wines and even vintage cuvée prestige labels. In addition to the major houses, alternate operations and smaller-scale growers to seek out are Ayala, Larmandier-Bernier, Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, Philipponnat, Egly-Ouriet, Alain Thiénot, Serge Mathieu, Vilmart, and Tarlant. There are many hundreds of others.

Pol Roger Blanc de BlancsBut the choices hardly end here. Not to be discounted are the styles found within the three categories, two of which pertain to the type(s) of grapes used. One of these is Blanc de Blancs, champagne made only from Chardonnay. Sourced mainly from the Côte de Blancs south of Épernay, this is my favourite type of champagne—stylish, refined, and texturally brilliant. Another type is Blanc de Noirs, made only from Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. Krug Brut Blanc de NoirsSourced at its very best from grapes grown throughout the Montagne de Reims and the Vallée de la Marne, Blanc de Noirs are usually rounder and fruitier, the best examples just as extraordinary as their counterparts. Then there is rosé champagne, made one of two ways. One is to craft a blend of still white wine (predominant) with a small quantity of still red wine. The other way is the saignée method, whereby the clear juice of red grapes is left to macerate on its skins for a short time—this is more expensive and difficult to correctly accomplish. Either way, rosé champagne is oftentimes more expensive than the white versions, and on occasion just as magnificent. However, most champagne is crafted from both red grapes and white grapes, via varying proportions of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.

Veuve Clicquot Demi-SecWithin these categories are levels of sweetness, the amount of sweetening agent, or liqueur d’expédition, added during the dosage stage of production—this occurs right before the wine is corked and ready for release. Most champagne is crafted in the brut style, or to near-full dryness (3-15g/l of sugar). However, over the past dozen years there has been a growing demand for champagne crafted with no liqueur d’expédition in it whatsoever. Such wines may contain one of five names on the label: brut zero, brut nature, brut sauvage, ultra brut, or extra brut (the very latter may contain 0-6g/l of sugar). Another popular style in certain parts of the world is demi-sec, champagne containing up to 8% sugar (or 33-50g/l). Though there are other levels of sweetness, these three are nowadays the most prevalent.

Such are the most important qualitative levels and stylistic differences to understand in Champagne, plus the best producers to seek out. Which brings us back to our original question: for collectors, what is the most prestigious winegrowing region of France after Bordeaux and Burgundy? Is it the Rhône Valley or Champagne?

Indeed, the Rhône offers more types of wine. However, from a position of quality, an average bottle of NV champagne is much more expensive than a standard bottle of Côtes du Rhône (though the former is much more expensive to produce). Even so, most would agree that overall quality in Champagne is higher than in the Rhône. But as collectors, we’re not dealing with average bottles, are we? We’re dealing with benchmarks, not with benchwarmers.

And in so doing, a stalemate is reached. For who would contend that a bottle of Salon is any less grand than a bottle of Guigal La Turque? Not I, and certainly not any self-respecting French wine collector.

 Click here for a few gems from the 26 May 2012 Vintages Release along with several others.


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Champagne– le vin du diable! by Tyler Philp

Long ago, in an area only 100 km northeast of what is now Paris France, the Romans planted vast vineyards in the thin soil that barely conceals the chalk-based earth.  Gazing from the hilltops today over the freshly furrowed fields, white chalk streaks peer out from beneath the rich brown topsoil.  Fossils and nutrients are all that remain and only hint of the vast ocean that once concealed this land. The Roman people believed that wine was a necessity of life and that it should be available to everyone regardless of class. Centuries later, as knights dominated battlefields defending their Kings andQueens, monks tended to vines in these same vineyards producing wine for the church and coronation of French monarchy.  Throughout history, the French have cherished their wine, but they are also guilty of feverish competition with each other to produce the country’s best bottled desires. The northern region is cold and generally unsuitable for the production of wine.  In fact, Champagne is by far the coldest wine growing region inFrance and at that time, the world. To the southeast of Paris is Burgundy, the home of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and some of the greatest wine in the world.  Always competitive, the Champenois endeavored to craft a red wine to better their counterparts in Burgundy but they were also well aware of their own shortcomings.

GossetThe wines of Champagne were originally rose tinted, stained by the dark skins of the Pinot Noir grape.  Another striking difference from the product that we are familiar with today was the absence of bubbles. Effervescence was actually an unwelcome surprise to the French winemakers and the subject of great concern.

In cooler years, the harvest and the cold winter air arrive almost simultaneously in the north of France which restricts the potential for fully ripe fruit.  At the time, the greater unknown was that low resultant temperatures within the cellars also caused the fermentation in the great wooden vats to cease.  Ever determined, the Champenois bottled their light-bodied and pungently acidic wine; a product certainly not worthy of boasting about to their Burgundian neighbours.  But with the arrival of spring, the temperature within the same bottles began to rise and unexpectantly, the fermentation continued.  Sealed beneath the cork, the wine started to bubble and froth.  And while no one understood why, they were also unable to prevent the reaction from occurring.  As the pressure increased, glass containers by the dozen began to explode and corks ejected like projectiles.  Those bottles that remained intact would later detonate in the cellar or worse, at the table – “le vin du diable!” they exclaimed – the Devil’s wine.

Sparkling wine is the product of nature and for the longest time, the source of frustration and embarrassment for the people of Champagne.  Unable to rival their Burgundian counterparts, many felt that quality wine production in the north of France was simply not possible.  Enter historical figures: Dom Perignon and English scientist Christopher Merret. Independently, these men conducted research and experiments on the wines of Champagne, over time gaining insight and understanding.  Eventually, they were able to safely manipulate, and contain the seemingly volatile potion.

“Come quickly, I am tasting stars!” – Dom Perignon

Legend says that Dom Perignon exclaimed these words upon discovering sparkling wine, but contrary to popular belief, Champagnewas not invented by the Benedictine monk alone; that was nature’s accomplishment. Truth be known, it was Dom Perignon’s intention to prevent the bubbles in Champagneand to create a superior still wine the courts would prefer over their famed Burgundy. Irrespective of his intentions, Perignon’s efforts were instrumental in the development of Champagne by blending different grape varieties.  He was also the creator of the collar system used to hold the cork in place.  That system, originally a piece of string is known as a muselet and is still in use today though modern technology has replaced the string with a wire cage.

Christopher Merret’s area of expertise was the second stage of fermentation that occurs after bottling wine in the presence of residual sugar.  As an advocate of the bubbles, he discovered that secondary fermentation increased the degree of alcohol in the wine which counterbalanced the level of acidity and added complexity.  More so, Merret found that the volatility could be controlled by regulating the level of sugar and yeast.

For Perignon and Merret, their efforts were simply to make the wine drinkable, and it would be another 100 years before sparkling wine would reflect what we know and enjoy today. If only these men could have foreseen their magical bubbles becoming the most celebrated of all wines.

DosageThe byproduct of secondary fermentation, as Merret discovered, is a layer of unsightly dead yeast cells which settle at the bottom of the bottle.  Prior to serving, the wine needed decanting but this of course caused the bubbles to go flat, defeating the process entirely.  In 1818, an employee of the widow (veuve) Clicquot discovered that by angling the bottles upside-down and slowly rotating them (called rémuage or riddling), the sediment would settle in the neck against the stopper.  Then, by freezing the neck of the bottle, the block of sediment was easily removed, the bottle topped-up with a small amount of wine and sugar (dosage) to dictate the final sweetness, and the cork inserted and secured.  While less labour intensive methods yielding more rapid results do exist, this traditional process known as méthod champenoise is the technique used to craft all high-quality, crystal clear sparkling wines that we enjoy today.

When serving bubbly this New Year’s Eve (or any other occasion) and contrary to common practice, the cork should be removed with care and without a great froth of bubbles.  Simply put: a great deal of effort went in to putting the bubbles into the wine – they should not be wasted on the ‘pop’.

“Champagne! In victory one deserves it; in defeat one needs it.” – Napolean

Tyler blogs at NorthOf9FineWine, you can find his reviews on WineAlign here.

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John Szabo’s Year End Fizz Picks 2011

John Szabo, MS - Hard at work

John Szabo, MS - Hard at work

Although makers of sparkling wines, especially champagne, have been looking to spread consumption over the full calendar year, the holiday period still accounts for roughly one quarter of yearly sales. It’s impossible to contemplate New Year’s Eve without bubbles. So I’ve set out my Top Fizz Picks currently in stock at VINTAGES, as well as some extraordinary, and tremendous value, champagnes available through private importing agents that are not to be missed. Yes, that means you have to purchase by the case – 6-packs – but most will also have the wines delivered to your door so you can avoid the traffic crunch, and, in the unlikely event that there will be any left over after the midnight bell tolls, these are all wines that will also age magnificently. And then there’s Valentine’s Day around the corner, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and Sunday brunches on the horizon…

What, Champagne Values?

Yes, they do exist. I’ve made it my mission to taste as much champagne as possible, and I’ve made some interesting observations along the way. Although “great value” and “champagne” are rarely uttered together, there is indeed value in the champagne world. Considering that champagne grapes are the most expensive in the world at close to 6 euros/kilo at the top (compared to well under one euro/kilo in places like, say, southern Italy or Spain or Central Valley Chile), champagne is expensive to make. And with yearly marketing budgets surpassing 7digits for the largest companies, promoting champagne is high stakes, accounting for a fair slice of the price.

So my simple formula for finding value champagne is 1) avoid the companies who own no vineyards and thus have to buy in all their grapes (about 80% of champagne is made this way), 2) avoid brands with the flashiest marketing campaigns (designer bottles and packaging, major event sponsors, etc.), and finally, 3) seek out producers who farm their own vineyards, known as ‘grower’ champagnes (identified by the tiny letters “RM” on the label, which stands for “récoltant manipulant”) and who have no marketing budget, thus all the effort and expense goes into what’s inside the bottle. It’s important to taste, since not all good growers are also good winemakers, but here’s a running start: five exceptional, privately imported RM champagnes that shouldn’t be missed (click on each for agent details):

2004 Champagne Guy Charlemagne Mesnillésimé,Champagne France $110.00  95pts
NV Champagne Agrapart Terroir Blanc de Blanc Grand Cru,Champagne, France  $55.00  94pts
NV Champagne Laherte Blanc de Blanc Brut Nature, Champagne, France $55.00  93pts
NV Champagne Jacquesson cuvee 735, Champagne, France $65.00  93pts
NV Champagne Tarlant Brut Zero, Champagne, France  $49.95  93pts

 Champagne Guy Charlemagne Mesnillésimé 2004 Champagne Agrapart Terroir Blanc De Blanc Grand Cru  Champagne Laherte Blanc De Blanc Brut Nature  Champagne Jacquesson Cuvee 735Tarlant Zero Brut Nature Champagne 2008

Top Fizz in Vintages

But if buying bubbles by the 6-pack direct from agents might result in possible divorce, here are my Top Value Picks in stock at VINTAGES:

Lallier Grand Cru Grande Réserve Champagne, Ac Champagne, France $47.95  92pts
2004 R. DUMONT & FILS BRUT MILLÉSIMÉ CHAMPAGNE AC, France, Récoltants-Manipulant  $54.95  92pts
Marc Hébrart Brut Blanc De Blancs Champagne, Ac, 1er Cru Champagne, France $41.95  91pts
Ayala Majeur Brut Champagne, Ac Aÿ, France Champagne, France $49.95  91pts

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve Champagne  Lallier Grand Cru Grande Réserve Champagne  R. Dumont & Fils Brut Millésimé Champagne 2004  Laurent Perrier Brut Millésimé Champagne 2002  Marc Hébrart Brut Blanc De Blancs Champagne  Ayala Majeur Brut Champagne

Click here for a convenient shopping list.

Cheers and Happy Holidays,
John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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