A Tale of Two Champagnes: Roederer and Liebault-Regnie

It was the best of times. It was the most demanding of times. A recent foray through the region of Champagne demonstrated the prosperity and the divisions defining modern Champagne.

Liébart-Regnier makes what we Americans know as ‘grower Champagne’. The family has owned property and vineyard land for 8 generations, beginning to make their own wine in the late 1960’s. As a family, with a hired oenologist, they produce less than 60,000 bottles of Champagne every year across 10 styles or cuvées.

Alessandra Liébart-Regnier stands behind her crop in 2019.

Louis Roederer epitomizes a Champagne ‘house’, a conventional, large scale producer vinifying roughly 4 million bottles in a year across at least 9 styles or cuvées.

Aida presents the history and nobility of Louis Roederer and the family’s wines.

The great news for both of these produces is that demand for every level of Champagne’s price and production points is holding firm. The luxury drink market seems safe. Prices in Champagne for grapes, labor, machinery and bottles have not seen a dip in more than 6 years. The camps of itinerant workers harvesting the grapes have never looked as well-stocked with modern fifth wheel campers and the cars to pull them. It’s a good time to help pick grapes.

Motorized tractors lug the grapes up the steeper aspects of Champagne, but the picking is all human.

Despite positive cash flow, Champenoise are intrinsically nervous. Long production timelines, long distribution lines, sketchy growing conditions and fluid market conditions conspire to strain that same cash flow. Whether your winery is huge or tiny, large percentages are at stake every year.

Which may be why our hosts inquired after American tastes. The United States drinks the most Champagne, then Russia, then Britain – it has always been an export market symbolized in small ways like the anchor on labels of Veuve Clicquot. They are keen to know what we’re after.

An abundance of style.

Americans are pursuing both models for the time being. Louis Roederer makes capital-C Champagne, on the lighter side of texture and weight, with complexity, but with the comfortable, textbook, predictable demeanor. Open any bottle of Louis Roederer and I will happily drink it with you. While small producers make Champagne, as bubbly as any Grandes Marque, they know they cannot beat the large houses at their own game. So, they make capital-W wine.

Louis Roederer makes wine too, but the narrow scope of every large house’s wines is so narrow that they largely taste the same to most Americans.

Although they are very distinctive.

Small producers, growers, with the latitude and injunction to stand out, make distinctive drinks. Less predictable, yes. Less expensive, usually. Less quality, not usually. Less character, not by a mile, or a kilometer as it were.

Chandelier at Louis Roederer

Quick snapshots of the wines:
Louis Roederer Brut Vintage 2012 was my favorite for the warm depth and range of the darker flavors for which Champagne is more than capable as it comes to room temperature. One of my companions preferred the Blanc de Blanc 2011 with its depth married to nervy minerality while the rest were enamored of the bright, brilliant and food-happy Rose 2013.

From Liébart-Regnier, the L’Instinct and L’Amelie provided the nearest bridge from conventional Champagne while the Arbane/Pinot Blanc/Petit Meslier blend was created from three lesser-known grapes allowed in Champagne and provided the unique, spicy, brilliant acidity and almond/brioche character at the “this is t for everyone” end of the spectrum. Open any of these wines, I will happily join you and we will have a memorable dinner!


A Tuscan Wine Experience: Antinori nel Chianti Classico

Sparking at the intersection of tradition and innovation…

Going on 50 years ago, the Marchese de Antinori rocked the Tuscan wine world by flouting tradition.
Today, innovation and tradition keep a rare and delicious correspondence in places like Antinori’s Chianti Classico estate; from the art to the architecture to the wine, it remains a distinctive place today.

Their international art resists definition – from spare biome globes to the spare rendition of the Resurrection on vinyl tarp to the 17th century oils and the line drawing miniatures of the Bacchae.
The building’s structure comes from three local materials: native oak, their Cortana steel/copper and the terra cotta. These comprise the voluminous 129,000 square foot, technologically advanced winery. Constructed into the side of a hill, it is nearly invisible, even from the air.

The Marchesi cultivates this balance of innovation and tradition as enthusiastically as his vineyards cultivate grapes balancing ripeness and acidity. The traditional grape varieties of Chianti alloy with international varieties in wines as diverse as the renowned Tignanello and the Chianti Classico. These foreigners lend bas relief of taste to the structure of the natives, a contrast that highlights the crisp acidity and lively (my guide called them ‘crunchy’) fruit and spice characters indicative of the region.

Yet, balance implies a simplistic quality, between ripeness and acidity or old and new or tradition and innovation; the deeper balance of dynamic elements winks out of these impressions from light, shadow and darkness.

Across Europe we celebrate the traditions of wine; we adhere to guarantee of the DOCg in Italy, entrusting their regulation to ensure the consistency of the next bottle, at least within the parameters of vintage. It has been this way for more than 100 years in Tuscany, less so in France but even longer in Spain, mainly to combat fraudulent copycats. Breaking these rules breaks faith, creates remarks. So in the celebration of the constancy of tradition, innovation always sparks attention.

Dynamism finds expression in the flexing terra cotta walls of the aging cellar, breathing with the seasons and the wine. It finds expression in the religious relics represented on modern materials adorning the aging room of the Vin Santo.

The massive winery appears as a topographical line from the air, a simple curve of architecture over vineyards from below, creating tension, space and wine where there was less before.

The place is like the wines, or vice versa.

This dynamism lives in the wines, new and old, light and concentrated, fresh and complex. The reds of Chianti mimic the best artistic tension; they pair with food to create something that was not there before.

What’s not to love here? The restaurant is mentioned by the Michelin guide, deservedly. The antique Tuscan art and terra cotta pieces adorn every architectural innovation. The hospitality is gracious and the wines express why the 12th century Baron Ricasoli thought this region deserved recognition and protection for its wine identity. For an authentic treat, try a bottle of Antinori’s Chianti Classico Riserva with some Wild Boar ravioli and Ragu!

Tartrates, Cookies, Chemistry and Age

All the Cream of Tartar in the world comes from grape fermentation.

“Waiter, there’s glass in my wine.”

“Oh good for you! You got the diamonds!”

and easily remedied with a judicious repour

Love Snickerdoodles? Thank wine. Love light, fluffy Angel Food cake? Thank wine again. There are many things to praise in the presence of wine, from sacraments to the corrosion of high density lipids.  Since Napoleon’s era, we can add toothsome baked goods to the list.

Unfortunately, it is lost to history who discovered grinding up wine’s tartaric precipitate (tartrates) and adding it to the bread flour, but add it they did, and the world is a better place for it. By the late 18th century, it was common enough in in French cookery to make it a common item in their bakeries – and by the early 19th century it was being mixed with baking soda to make baking powder, as it is today.

Tartrates formed in a half bottle of Sauterne wine.

Tartrates are the crystalline form of wine’s most abundant acidity.  Should the winery wish to filter the tartaric acid out before bottling the wine, all they have to do is turn down the tank temperatures to 45 degrees, or open wintry doors to the barrel room.  Either one works.  The lower temperature squeezes the acidity out of the wine’s chemistry.  

This precipitation, as the chemists call it, takes the form of big chunks in wine vats or as smaller grit in wine bottles. (One will need 6-8 bottles worth, dried and ground, to make a batch of Snickerdoodles.) This grit is flavorless, odorless and has no impact on the resulting wine except that to cold-filter a wine before it is bottled also removes other, desirable flavor characters.  These little bits of grit, most easily photographed in white wine, speak of conscientious winemaking, not careless winemaking.

Red Wine tartrates are easiest to find on the cork.

Red wine sediments are also made of tannins and pigments that polymerize and precipitate out as they become too long to remain in suspension.  In red wine, that process requires years, if not a decade or two to happen.  Tartrates in any color of wine form as quickly as the wine is bottled and chilled, if they have not been previously chilled out at the winery.

Aged tartrate deposits are less well-defined and will cloud easily if disrupted.

The lesson in service is this: old tartrates require slow, gentle decanting to prevent them getting to your guest’s glass; young tartrates or ‘wine diamonds’ are almost as easy to catch as pouring slowly across the shoulders of that Bordeaux bottle, letting them collect there while the wine pours over the top. 

Look for wine bottles with these sediments; the wine you find inside will taste better than its peers – and probably better than any Snickerdoodle.

How to Become a Sommelier

It’s harder and easier than you think.

It’s harder and easier than you think.

Organolepts are people who use their sense of taste and smell to help navigate an industry. Coffee uses them. Perfumiers hire them. The FDA uses them to assess the impact of oil spills on the taste of seafood. If you do it for ice cream, you have the lowest life expectancy of all organolept careers. Cicerones do it for beer, Sommeliers do it for wine.

David Litt of Berkeley Science Review lists a dozen careers in food sensory analysis, and none of those jobs involve thirsty guests, standards of affability, twitchy managers, alcohol consumption or arcane knowledge of Italian labeling laws. “Tasting Panel Associate” has training requirements that are nowhere near as arduous as a Sommelier certification.

But, in truth, there are 6 relatively simple steps to becoming a Sommelier:

  1. TASTE – spit. Taste again. Spit again. Professionals spit because it concentrates experience without the fog of alcohol. If a professional tasting only had 10 wines offering an ounce each, one might make it swallowing the alcohol. The last professional tasting I attended had 48 wines; one would have had the equivalent of a bottle by the 24th wine – and as for remembering the last 5, impossible. Professionals endearingly compare it to fishing; we practice catch-and-release. PRO HINT: practice attention on the first, second and final taste impressions each wine carries – and notice if these change over the space of time the wine is being tasted.
Taste often.

2. TAKE NOTES – Even if it is one line of 8-10 words for each wine, it sticks the impression in the memory far better than no written notation of the wine. “Sour black cherry jam on toast” will bring the experience of that wine back to you quickly. Will your words work for others? Not at first – and that’s ok. Will you look like a dork at the tasting bar? Maybe, but you will have a far better idea of the wines’ applications, nuances and value than those who do not. PRO HINT: step aside while note-taking so that others may taste also.

A structured system will be easier to compare wine to wine.

COMPARE NOTES – Tasting in a group is the most efficient way to learn insights into wine’s impressions. If you are sipping your bottle of Cheval Blanc 1961 out of a styrofoam cup alone in a greasy diner, you can take notes and compare them to any one of a number of publications, websites like CellarTracker.com or WineSearcher.com to triangulate a rounder, more complete “taste-picture” of the wine than any one taster could ever accomplish. There are more sublime ways to taste old Merlot-based wine than aside a cheeseburger and onion rings and your tasting companions can help find them. PRO HINT: when reading a publication’s reviews, keep in mind if the review is formed by one individual or a committee for calibrating your opinion in relation to theirs.

Miles’ despair. (Sideways – Fox/Searchlight)

4. TRAVEL – By now, there are favorite wines in your repertoire. Go to the vineyard. Shake the hand of the winegrower. Taste the wines again in situ. Are they the same? Discriminate your own perceptions of the differences. Stand in the vineyard and just soak it in, the views, the smells, the somewhereness of it all. Well-made wine will remind you of the place, bringing it full circle and leave you wondering why more wines don’t do that. PRO HINT: Every offer to taste an older wine from the winery’s cellar is a huge compliment. It will offer unparalleled perspective to how their wines develop in bouquet, intensity, complexity and general appeal.

Irrigation lines, pruning techniques and climate are hard to understand from a book.

5. SHARE/TEACH – Just like comparing notes, teaching makes you vulnerable to learning more by pointing out the “taste topography” of a wine or taste combination. Other people will taste differently and share with you. Get a job doing it; this is the ultimate way of sharing. A job in a restaurant, bottle shop or tasting room is the fastest way to curate your own experience and expertise. Further, local community colleges, libraries and restaurants welcome an organizer to lead a wine experience. Even if you just learned the material, you will be ahead of the class. PRO HINT: Be aware of alternate spellings and pronunciations of wine grapes or regions, i.e. – Piedmont is Piemonte as easily.

Coeur d’Alene Cellars teaches local restaurant staff the finer points of wine.

6. REPEAT – The cycle is repeated by Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine the world over. Taste, take notes, compare, travel and share. Each cycle has a broader reach than the last time around. PRO HINT: The secret 7th step is to ENJOY.

Taste, take notes, compare notes, travel, share, do it again and ENJOY!

Every cycle gets larger and more inclusive, able to talk to more people more easily about deeper segments of wine. The next best reward is to earn the confidence of a diner with enough speed to choose their dinner wine for them. The absolute best is when they return to have you do it again.

Do you have a story about becoming a Somm? Did I miss any steps?

The Delicious Reward of Patience

Age displays its own savory chemistry.

Participating in a wine auction weekend is an illuminating exercise in the physical and sensory changes between newly minted wine and wine that has had a chance to mature. What it offers a taster is the perspective of how old is old enough.

A few Sunday nights ago, Corliss Winery of Walla Walla poured their 2005 Cabernet Franc; on Monday morning, they offer the same wine from 2017.  The 2005 inspired adjectives (that don’t communicate much) like “seamless”, “balanced” and “smooth”.  By contrast, the 2017 had similar texture, similar alcohol, but the “seams” were everywhere.  The alcohol was sharp, the tannins (that were so well integrated into that elder wine as to be unremarkable) were obvious and the fruit aspects of the wine were so assertive as to seem “hard” and “unexpressive” by comparison.

There was nothing intrinsically unappealing about the younger wine.  It was only by contrast to its older sibling that inspired the seductive appeal of the older wine.

The physical and chemical explanations for the changes to our perception lie deeper than this explanation; but the bulk of wine’s changes in flavor find themselves in the reactions of fruit to air.  Fruit oxidizes, flattens, turns a different shade of color with exposure to air – even faster without refrigeration – but ever so slowly in a sealed bottle. Cut an apple open and leave it on the counter for an hour to see oxidation in process.

Next, the other biggest agent of developmental change from young wine to old is reduction of the number of separate, disparate molecules and development of longer chains of similar or compatible molecules.  When we say the wine is coming together nicely, it is as literal as it is figurative.

The impression on a taster needs no such explanation, no matter how simple or complex.  Tasting mature wine is long touted by the viniferati as being “better”, while impatience and proximity to young wine often short circuits the ability to find out.   As with all matters of taste, the difference to a taster is obvious, how to communicate it is not.

If the opportunity presents itself to try the same wine old and young, especially with more than a decade of difference between them, your palate will never be the same – nor will your sense of preference – but you will know if you need a wine cellar or not.

And thank you to the Walla Walla Wine Alliance for sponsoring such an eye-opening retrospective of the region’s wines, their winemakers and the spirit of camaraderie that infuses the valley.