An attack of champagne fever

– Do you want the Blanc de Blancs or the Brut?

– Nah, I’ll have the Rosé.

We felt pretty much at ease on day three in Champagne to order our umpteenth « coupe ».  Almost like the locals, I was tempted to say. But in fact I saw the locals drinking beer, gin, coke, cocktails and what not, but not champagne. Luckily there are hordes of tourists who do, just like me last weekend, spending a surprise weekend in Reims to soothe the pain of the big 4-0. Yes, yours truly reached the age when you start asking : will I die any time soon? Should I sell my house and buy a couple of Romanée Contis? Or quit my job and become a grape picker? So my wife organised a weekend in the Champagne region! Who knows me better than my piano? My wife does…

« We’re going to Champagne?! », I panicked when she told me. « Then I urgently need to do some research on which local grower we should visit! Because we should buy some champagne of course! » The champagne fever had gotten hold of me. A brief lucid moment made me realize that I actually already have quite a stash from last winter’s raid at the wine fair in Lille, France. But then the champagne fever took over definitively : « Well, we’ll just have to drink more champagne then, won’t we?! »

As it turned out, the end of August is not a good moment to go to Champagne. This is the last moment of peace for the growers before the harvest begins, so they take their well-deserved holidays. Already three or four had let me know that they were not available for a visit, when I spoke to the lady of Champagne Laherte Frères in Chavot. There they were already preparing the cellars for the coming harvest, which is exceptionally early this year. She must have heard the despair in my voice when I asked if we could not come on Saturday then instead of Friday, because she finally accepted!

It took us a while to find them, because they didn’t have any big signs anywhere. When we found them, we were greeted by two Frenchmen who were equally suffering from champagne fever. « Since you are from Belgium, we kindly ask you to turn around and leave. There are things you share and things you don’t share! » « Very well », I said, « let’s make a deal. If you no longer touch our beers, we will not come to Champagne anymore. » That seemed to be a convincing argument to let us stay. When the lady of the house went out to get something, one of our French friends continued in a hushed voice : « Seriously, these champagnes are damn good stuff! Unfortunately, the prices are accordingly! » I had not seen the price list yet, but I knew that their basic Brut cost 16,60€ in 2016. I was shocked to see that it now costs 25,50€. A 50% price rise over two years… I thought the locals had become immune to champagne fever, but it seems that at Laherte Frères they caught the virus as well… Luckily it has not yet damaged their capacity to make great champagnes! We tasted the biggest part of their range, and we loved most if not all of them. IMG_2320The Brut and the Blanc de Blancs (100% chardonnay) were very good, fine, elegant, fresh. I also loved the 100% pinot meunier, but it was quite pricy at 39,90€. The odd one out was a 100% pinot noir. The wood was quite strong in the nose (most of their champagnes are made with wines that are aged in barrels) but the champagne actually tasted like a red Burgundy… I found it hard to believe, I had never tasted anything like this. There was actually red fruit in there. We did not need more convincing, they have high quality champagnes at Laherte! We bought a selection and moved on.

Next stop : G.H. Mumm. One of the big houses, completely different than a small, local grower. But it’s nice to wander around in those endless cellars where it’s 12°C all year round. More than a 100km of cellars under Reims, it’s hard to believe, almost a second city under the city. And in a way, this is the heart of the city, a cold one, but beating strongly.  Mumm produces 7,5 million bottles every year. Mainly for the « emblematic » Cordon Rouge. Sophie, our guide, always talked about the « emblematic » Cordon Rouge. Luckily I did not get the « emblematic » Cordon Rouge  during the tasting at the end of the tour, as my wife had booked the Black and White Experience. Not that I would have minded drinking Cordon Rouge, but we got the RSRV Blanc de Blancs, a 100% chardonnay vintage champagne of 2012, and the RSRV Blanc de Noirs, a 100% pinot noir vintage of 2008. IMG_2312This is a high-end line of champagnes, one bottle costing 60€. The Blanc de Blancs was very fine, it had a beautiful mineral nose and a touch of Brie cheese, something that reminds me of the 2011 vintage of Dhondt-Grellet. The mousse, the bubbles, was very fine. A lovely champagne really! The Blanc de Noirs was the complete opposite, with more fruit in the nose, mirabelle plums, and a very round mouthfeel. Less my style of champagne.

Final destination, the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay, a stately avenue where a few big houses have their buildings. Moët et Chandon, amongst others, with a statue of good old Dom Pérignon, the friar whom is said to have discovered how you put bubbles in wine. IMG_2359We decided to peek inside out of curiosity and ended up in the shop, with techno beats and golden gadgets shattered between the « Doms ». It gave me a slightly uncomfortable feeling because I found myself between people who seemed to be in the final stage of champagne fever. People who are in this irreversible stage can be recognized by the following symptoms : taking selfies in front of a bottle of Moet Ice Impérial, loading your car with several cases of « Dom », or buying a Moët umbrella of 50€. IMG_2361These people are unfortunately beyond salvation, and need to be avoided. That’s why we decided to shuffle swiftly towards the exit without attracting anyone’s attention.

And that’s when we ended up on the inner court of Collard-Picard further down the avenue to enjoy a Blanc de Blancs and a Rosé. An appropriate ending to a feverish champagne weekend.IMG_2365

Back home the worst still had to come, I thought, as my birthday was only on Tuesday. I feared that moment and I expected I would need alot of champagne to get through that difficult day. But guess what, I got up, and I was still the same, nothing had happened. My hair had not turned grey overnight, I did not suffer from memory loss, and I did not feel the need to buy a motorcycle.

I opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate all that.



Transparency in wine

Today’s blog post is not about the color of wine but about more information on what is in your bottle (yes, it’s wine, I know) and how it’s made. This is a subject that’s been on my mind already for a while. But I got triggered by an article on Social Vignerons by Kelly Shepherd. She justly makes the point that wine labels are lacking important information for the consumer, such as the degree of sweetness of the wine and nutrition facts. I totally agree that there could be more information on a wine label so here’s a couple more suggestions of what wine makers could communicate about.

Let’s start with SO2 (sulphur dioxide), yes, the stuff of which you’ve been told it gives you headache. I’m not going to repeat the debate here about whether or not SO2 in wine gives you headache. Personally, I think alcohol is a logical first suspect if you want to find a culprit for your headache, but anyway, SO2 is not a substance that you should consume masses of either. So, wouldn’t it be logical if labels mentioned the amount of SO2 in a bottle? “Contains sulphites” is a mention that doesn’t help us much, because that just means that there is more than 10mg/l in your wine, which is almost always the case. And you need to be a real geek to know that the maximum level of SO2 in red wine, for example, is 150mg/l in Europe (350mg/ in the US!). And besides, knowing the maximum level doesn’t mean there is actually that much in your wine. So all we know is that there is between 10 and 150mg/l in a bottle of wine. Having more precise information is not only interesting for health conscious consumers. People with asthma can actually suffer an attack from too high levels of sulphites. Scientists still don’t understand the exact mechanisms of what exactly triggers such an attack and if SO2 in wine can directly cause one. But if I had asthma, I would like to know how much SO2 is in my wine, so I could at least be careful. By the way, organic wine does have lower SO2 levels, but there is still a margin between 0 and 100mg/l (for red wine).


Contains Sulphites – sure, but how much?

Sweetness : like Kelly Shepherd argued, it’s difficult to know how sweet a wine is. Actually, it’s sometimes difficult to know if a wine is sweet at all.  It wouldn’t be the first time that someone gave me a bottle of sweet white wine as a present, thinking it was dry… Take the case of a white Bordeaux Supérieur. In almost all parts of the world the word “supérieur” refers to higher alcohol levels or perhaps longer ageing. In the case of a Bordeaux Supérieur, it means that the wine is sweet… In Jurançon (South-West France) it’s even more complicated : if the label doesn’t explicitly mention that it is dry, then it is sweet… If that’s not confusing?


If the label doesn’t mention it’s dry, then it’s sweet!

Even for wines that are technically “dry”, it can still be interesting to have an indication of how dry. The sensory threshold of sugar in wine depends a bit on your sensitivity, but in general it’s around 3g/l that you can start to have an impression of roundness in the wine. Not unimportant when you’re drinking red wine from Valpolicella, Italy, for example. Sugar levels of around 5-6g/l are no exceptions there. And believe me, you will taste the difference. For many people 6g/l in red is already too high. They might perhaps not be able to tell you why they don’t like the wine, but if they say that the wine is too round or too jammy. It’s the sugar!

In regions where they make a lot of sweet wine, such as Alsace in France or the Mosel in Germany, it can be notoriously difficult to find out whether your wine will be sweet, medium sweet or dry. Especially in Germany where categories such as “Kabinett” don’t tell you much unless you know your way around German wine. In the Alsace region several producers started using  a scale of sweetness on the label, indicating where the wine is situated on that scale. Domaine Kientzler does a good job here adding the “indice de sucrosité“.

Champagne is another such example of where dry and dry can be two different things. In principle when the bottle mentions “Brut”, it should be dry. But the maximum sugar level for “Brut” being at 12g/l, you can be sure that you will taste the difference between a Champagne that’s at 6g and one that is at 12g… Again, no way of knowing when you’re buying a bottle unless it’s explicitly mentioned on the label.


An example of good practice by Dhondt-Grellet in Champagne

And while we’re in Champagne, let’s also talk about dégorgement, or the disgorgement. That is the process of taking the lees (dead yeast cells) out of the bottle before the liqueur de tirage is added, to bring the champagne to the desired level of sweetness, and the final cork is put on. As long as the disgorgement did not happen, the wine will continue to evolve. The effect of the time spent on the lees is more complexity and aromas of toasted bread, yeast, patisserie, brioche, those beautiful aromas that are so typical for champagne. In principle, once the champagne is bottled, the wine will not evolve anymore. Some argue that top champagnes still need a couple of years cellaring before you drink it, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. So what does this mean? That you better drink your champagne (or any sparkling wine for that matter) as soon as possible after the disgorgement, especially if you cannot store it in good conditions (dark and cool). The question of course is : how do you know when the champagne was bottled?! Some mention the date of disgorgement on the label, but the vast majority doesn’t. So if you see a bottle of champagne in your local supermarket, there’s really no way of knowing for how long it’s been standing there in the daylight, at room temperature. In the worst case your champagne will taste of brown apples, which means it’s oxidized. Quite unfortunate if you spent 30€ for a bottle, isn’t it?

I could go on about things that are useful and interesting information for us but that are lacking on the label or the technical sheet, but I’ll stop here. My point is that more transparency in wine and how it’s made would be a good thing for the consumer. I’m aware, though, of potential pitfalls : wine makers’ core business is making wine, not communication. Especially small producers will probably shrug their shoulders when you ask them about more information on the label. And then there is also the question of technicality : how to make sure that the information they provide is also understood by the consumer. Valuable points, for sure. But I think that such things evolve. Once everyone expects certain things to be on the label or a technical sheet, then more and more wine makers will start providing that information. And the more information is provided, the more consumers will become aware of the significance of it and why they might want to know all that stuff. If you now see the caloric value of a biscuit on its label, chances are high that you will be able to judge if that is a lot or not in comparison with other food. And then, it’s up to you if you want to eat it or not. Because you can make an informed decision. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do the same with a bottle of wine?

Goodbye champagne… Hello champagne!

You can never have enough champagne in the house. Seriously! I’m hooked. I’ve come a far way, though. Before I was really into wine, I used to say : “why would you buy an expensive bottle of champagne if you can have cava for 5€? What’s the difference?!” Well, that was a long time ago… With the discovery of a whole new world of wine during my sommelier training, I also came to appreciate champagne. The aromas of apple, chalk, butter, toasted bread, brioche are now aromas that I cherish every time I drink a good champagne.  Continue reading “Goodbye champagne… Hello champagne!”