The Champagne Guide 2011 by Tyson Stelzer

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The Champagne Guide by Tyson Stelzer

The Champagne Guide by Tyson Stelzer [©Winepros/VisitVineyards.com]

The Champagne Guide by Tyson Stelzer
The Champagne Guide 2011 by Tyson Stelzer

 

Why a Champagne guide for Australia? Because we love it! And because, almost unbelievably, there wasn’t a current one – until now. It’s ten years since the esteemed UK wine writer Andrew Jefford wrote the last book about Champagne.

There are numerous guides to Australian and New Zealand wines, and several guides for reds; as our wine tastes and knowledge develop, soon I suspect there will be guides for every variety imaginable.

So, if you’re a wine writer looking for a niche, you may as well choose a large, unfilled, growing and enjoyable one. In the words of the author, Tyson Stelzer: ‘every year we pop three million bottles, making Australians the biggest Champagne drinkers outside Europe, and bigger than Germany and Italy. Australia now ranks ninth in the world for Champagne consumption.

This is staggering, considering that for a decade-and-a-half until 2002, we popped just a million bottles. In the merry old land of Oz we now down an average of a glass per head per year. The US slurps the equivalent of a measly shot glass per person, the same as the Japanese’.

Expect this trend to continue to increase, as the Australian dollar climbs. The GFC and economic downturn seem only to have added to the demand for this luxury beverage.

To quote the media release: ‘The Champagne Guide 2011 features scintillating vintage wines from one of Champagne’s finest grower producers that you can snaffle for as little as $42. It tastes of all the legendary prestige cuvées of every worthy house (ie maker or brand), and it champions the best of everything in between.

Whether you’re spending $40 or $679, hunting for a high-strung aperitif, sexy rosé or thundering, mature vintage, Tyson Stelzer has found just the wine for you’.

Is it coincidence that the author resides in the same town as Australia’s undisputed Queen of Champagne, Bernadette O’Shea (multiple French-award winning author of the sumptuous Champagne & Chandeliers)? Perhaps the residents of Brisbane really are living up to their Brisvegas soubriquet and are leading the Champagne lifestyle.

Well if they’re not, they and more around Australia might soon be, armed as we will be with The Champagne Guide 2011 and with it the confidence and knowledge to buy more wisely. For when wine prices are high (despite our soaring Aussie $ – hello importers?) mistakes can be not only disappointing but costly indeed.

I suspect that like many wine drinkers, I enjoy Champagne, and know a few of the bigger names and a couple of good vintages, but when it comes to the plethora of single grower and biodynamic makers who have seemingly emerged like mushrooms since Jefford’s guide was published, I’m at a loss to know where to begin.

There is no specialised retailer anywhere near where I live for guidance, either, and those that do stock Champagne generally have a very limited range, or are only intent on pushing their own favourites.

Firstly, let’s look at some background. The primary grapes used in the production of Champagne are pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier – which varieties are selected, and the proportions in which they are blended (and from where within the region) vary by maker, and by vintage.

There are now more than one hundred Champagne houses and over 19,000 smaller vignerons in Champagne, managing some 32,000 hectares of vines (about three times the vineyard area of Western Australia). The Champagne Guide 2011 can thus by necessity only cover a small proportion of them, but by restricting itself to most of those that make it to Australian shores, it covers the most proactive.

Historic names are included: the Champagne house of Gosset, which was founded as a still wine producer in 1584 and is the oldest Champagne house still in operation today; Ruinart, founded in 1729, Taittinger 1734, Moët et Chandon 1743 and Veuve Clicquot founded in 1772.

Stelzer tasted almost 200 currently available Champagnes for this guide – many in situ in France – and his chosen ebook format allows it to be up to date for those on the Australian market in 2011. It covers vintage, non-vintage (NV) and ‘prestige’ wines (which he fails to define in his otherwise reasonably comprehensive glossary, but which are obviously at the higher end of the price scale).

He ranks the Champagne house simply out of 10, ‘throwing political correctness to the wind’ and sensibly in my view using the full numerical range. There are two that only scored 1/10, although as he points out, these are relative scores only, ie they compare the houses to each other, based on the merits of the wines he tasted.

As one might expect, most fell in the 5-7 range, but there are five he awarded 8/10, two 9/10 (Dom Perignon and Pol Roger) and four 10/10 (Billecart, Bollinger, Krug and Salon).

Perhaps more politically incorrect and unlikely to win Stelzer much admiration in parts of Champagne are his awards for ‘Grand Fizzer for the Year’, and the various other ‘fizzers’ caused by the wine being ‘lightstruck’ (misspelt in the glossary but meaning wines that have been overexposed to ultraviolet light in storage, resulting in a taste like onions), or because they are corked (with an aroma likened to wet, mouldy cardboard).

Yes, we need to know, but there’s a certain degree of in-your-faceness in The Champagne Guide 2011 that we might be used to in Australia but which might be seen as rude, or worse, elsewhere (calling the list ‘Name and Shame’ is hardly diplomatic). The Champagne houses spend a lot of money on both their wine storage and their corks, and to me cannot be held entirely responsible for these outcomes, especially for storage issues that occur after they leave their premises or arrive in Australia.

Obviously as a champion of Stelvin screwcaps, Stelzer is anti-cork, and I agree that the percentage of failure and waste of wines under cork is unacceptable in this century (most say around 5%, but others as high as 10% – either would be farcical in the IT industry, and potentially deadly in the aviation, food or automotive industries). One in 18 of Stelzer’s tasted bottles were corked (5.5%), at price levels from $55 per bottle to $360.

However the Stelvin-equivalent alternative to Champagne corks is currently the crown seal (used on beer bottles), which for the consumer is the total antithesis of the luxury that Champagne epitomises. I don’t believe that an acceptable solution has yet been found.

Being an ebook format also allows Stelzer to make a feature of wines he considers ‘stale’, a term absent from the glossary but meaning wines that are either ‘too old, improperly warehoused, lightstruck or some a combination’. All the offending wines were non-vintage (NV) and ranged from $80-125 in price.

However, along with the corked wines, he points out that in every instance he received a replacement from the seller, but I’d like to see you or I try that and get the same result, unless the cork taint is incredibly obvious and you have the time and patience for a potential argument with the retailer.

But that special moment you may have been celebrating cannot easily be recaptured. If Champagne is to remain synonymous with celebration, the issue of cork taint in particular must be addressed.

Back to the wines, especially the good ones. The Champagnes of 52 houses and makers are reviewed, from the big names to several smaller up-and-coming grower producers (those who make wine from grapes purely from their own vineyards), and each is assessed on the 100 point (American) scale. They are grouped alphabetically by producer, and within that, by price, the lowest first.

It would have helped me considerably if The Champagne Guide 2011 contained a list of either the Top 100, or all of them, in points order, as has become the norm in guides such as James Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion. You need to read through each maker’s chapter to really sort the wheat from the chaff (as much as any Champagne deserves this term!). It’s more easily searchable in ebook format.

However the first chapter ‘Rise to the Top’ gives us some lists: Stelzer’s 2011 Champagne House of the Year (Billecart-Salmon), his Grower-Producer of the Year (Pierre Gimmonet et Fils), wine of the year, rosé (pink Champagne) of the year, at the standard, prestige and under $100 price points, and the bargain of the year, which is $60. You’ll have to buy the book to find out.

It’s not good news for makers of Australian sparking: ‘discover Gimmonet this year and I promise you will never view $40 in the same way again. Ever.’ (Well, until the Australian dollar falls again, perhaps).

But it is good news for the consumer, as he or she struggles to come to grips with the increasingly bewildering range of Champagnes that are making their way into our major retailers’ shelves. Handily, Stelzer lists these at the end, including which labels they stock, their web addresses if known, and their email addresses should you wish to order online. Many have 1300 phone numbers, too.

The hard copy book is A4 size, and with its attractive cover perhaps more designed to read at home than to lug to your nearby bottleshop, although it’s not overly thick. The ebook is another matter, especially if you have an iPad; it performs very well and is attractive and easy to read. (I suspect the print edition with its copious amounts of white space is an adaptation of the ebook version).

Other topics covered include a ‘frank commentary on all the current issues facing Champagne: global warming, expanding boundaries, excessive yields, antiquated cru system, and so on; everything you need to know about how to buy, open, serve and store Champagne; and how Champagne is grown and made’. There are numerous photographs and bottle shots to bring it to life.

The Champagne Guide 2011 has global application as most of the wines and houses reviewed are available worldwide. The Aussie idiom may not be quite as transportable, but look beyond that if you can, and it’s a very useful and timely guide, particularly for those like me who wish they knew more about Champagne but aren’t in a position to experiment, and certainly not with 200 bottles. Wine scribes James Halliday, Huon Hooke and Jancis Robinson also highly recommend it.

As the author says ‘All for less than the price of a glass of decent Champagne’. Expect a 2012 edition in time for next Christmas, and meanwhile as we say in Australia, cheers!

 

The Champagne Guide 2011 by Tyson Stelzer (WinePress, Brisbane, 2010) is available in ebook format for download to computer or iPad, at a cost of A$24.95. Click here for purchasing information »

 

A limited print edition of 300 was also produced (WinePress, Brisbane 2010, sc, 176 pp), RRP A$29.95 + $10 postage within Australia. (Higher postage rates apply overseas). Order from the above link (while stocks last).

 

Congratulations to author Tyson Stelzer, who  was awarded International Champagne Writer of the Year in the Louis Roederer Awards in September 2011 for The Champagne Guide 2011.

 

Regions

  • France - all (FR)

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April 28th, 2011
 
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