The Champagne Guide 2012-2013 by Tyson Stelzer

The new edition, with double the reviews and more – for your iPad, or in print

By Robyn Lewis
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The Champagne Guide 2012-2013 by Tyson Stelzer

The Champagne Guide 2012-2013 by Tyson Stelzer

 

Until last year’s publication of The Champagne Guide 2011 by Tyson Stelzer, there hadn’t been a Champagne tasting guide for ten years.

So it was little surprise that it was a welcome addition to the market. For his efforts, Stelzer received the Louis Roederer International Champagne Writer of the Year Award 2011, the first time it has been bestowed on an Australian, and an honour indeed.

The book aroused some controversy, not least because in true Aussie style it pulled no punches, and doubtless some were offended. The language was pithier than one might normally expect in a wine book, especially one on that most revered of beverages, Champagne. The kid gloves were off.

With the release of The Champagne Guide 2012-2013, Stelzer has claimed this territory as his own. Taking on board some of the feedback received, the new edition is more refined.

Firstly, it has a hard cover and a classier appearance (the ebook version remains, of course); secondly, instead of mentioning Champagne houses that Stelzer scored below 5/10, he omits them altogether; and thirdly, its style has matured and become more – shall we say – diplomatic, without of course sparing those whose wines were not up to his tasting standards.

The 2012/2013 edition updates all last year’s 52 producers, and adds 43 more, doubling its size and weight. Fortunately there is a new e-book version for your iPad, for those travelling or wishing to take it discreetly to their nearby fine wine merchant.

Over 400 recently-released Champagnes are rated, all of which were personally tasted by the author over an intensive two-week period in Champagne, a task than even he describes as ‘monumental’.

Back in 2011, Stelzer said that ‘every year we (Australians) pop three million bottles, making (us) 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’.

Despite the GFC this trend accelerated in 2011, aided by the height of the Australian dollar, our continued tastes for overseas travel and for new and finer things. Add the increase in availability of a wider range of Champagnes in Australia – meaning that wines from the smaller (and previously little known) houses are finding distributors and a market here – not only are we drinking more, but the need for such a guide is more obvious than ever.

Consumption of Champagne in Australia rose an amazing 25% in 2011, to 3.7 million bottles (note, this excludes Australian sparkling wines and those from all other countries and regions). Incroyable! Australians are now among the top five Champagne-drinkers in the world. It may be that The Champagne Guide 2011 also gave us the confidence and knowledge to buy more, and to buy better.

I suspect that like many wine drinkers, I enjoy Champagne, know some of the bigger names and good vintages, but when it comes to the plethora of single growers and smaller houses, I find them impenetrable. No longer with The Champagne Guide 2012-2013 in hand.

For this year, Stelzer’s guide has come a long way. Last year’s was good, The Champagne Guide 2012-2013 is excellent.

The book commences with an evocative overview of the region, setting the scene for romance. But Stelzer is not won over by overtures and Champagne’s marketing hype; not only are all the wines personally tasted, but he’s keenly seeking that most characteristic trait of good Champagnes: minerality.

This quality – imparted by the chalk soils and bedrock of the region – has several dimensions, according to Stelzer: ‘linear intensity’, ‘textural perspective’ (fine, course, chalky, gravelly) and thirdly, ‘mineral personality’. Of the latter, he says some terroirs of Champagne are savoury, others neutral, and some salty, perhaps tapping into deposits from the inland seas that originally laid down the chalk.

The French call it ‘l’eau de roche’ – the water of the rock. Some Champagne growers profess their wines taste of the ocean, oyster shells and sea salt, from shorelines long receded. I believe them; even in Australia’s new world regions, the same is starting to show in our better sparkling wines, especially those from the coolest and maritime regions, Tasmania in particular.

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. Using satellite views, Stelzer maps the regions in this year’s guide, and one can more easily get a good feel for Champagne and its five main production areas from these maps, and also to understand which areas tend to specialise in one main variety depending on their soil types and aspect.

There is also a good four-page summary of the complex process by which Champagne is made; add the further intricacies of blending (Bollinger Special Cuvée is a blend of over 240 base wines spanning three grape varieties, two vintages and at least five older reserve wines) and one can well understand why the blender is called the ‘chef du cave’ – the chef of the cellar – and is revered.

“It is as if we have to make a cake,” explains Louis Roederer’s Mary Roche. “The recipe changes every year because the ingredients change with the season, but the cake must taste the same.” Unlike cake however, there is little room for trial and error.

There are now over a hundred Champagne houses and 19,000 smaller vignerons in Champagne, managing some 32,000 hectares of vines (about three times the vineyard area of Western Australia). Some are thus tiny, and despite the book’s larger size, The Champagne Guide 2012-2013 can only cover a small proportion of them.

This year however it does not restrict itself to Champagnes that reach Australia, but includes some that are likely to arrive in the near future, and/or are popular in other countries.

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, and many lesser known houses.

It covers vintage, non-vintage (NV) and ‘prestige’ wines (the most expensive flagship labels). Stelzer ranks the Champagne houses out of 10, ‘throwing political correctness to the wind’.

The same four houses received 10/10 as in 2011 (Billecart, Bollinger, Krug and Salon), five rated 9/10 (De Sousa & Fils, Egly-Ouriet and Pierre Péters joined last year’s Dom Perignon and Pol Roger) and the number receiving 8/10 (including Taittinger) more than doubled to 12, perhaps reflecting the larger number of houses covered.

As in 2011, most fell in the 5-7 range, including some well-known names: Charles Heidsieck, Deutz, Gosset, Louis Roederer and Ruinart all 7/10; Lanson, Veuve Cliquot 6/10; and Piper-Heidsieck 5/10. (We will never know if some others did not submit their wines for tasting, or failed to make the grade).

Stelzer’s lists of Best Champagnes are mouth-watering, and cover

  • the Best Champagne under (A)$60, which are generally rated 92-94 points but include a 95-pointer from Lenoble, their Cuvee Intense NV;
  • Best Champagne under $100 (93-95 points)
  • Best Champagne under $200 (95-98 points) and
  • Best Champagne of the Year at Any Price, (97-100 points), which range from an extraordinary value-for-money Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 1999 for $220, through to Dom Perignon Oenothèque at $3000.

There is further discussion of biodynamics and organic methods of production, but Stelzer reminds us that in such marginal growing conditions as Champagne, there would be frequent losses of entire harvests without fungal sprays. Most growers respect their valuable soils so greatly that they treat them and their vines with the utmost care.

Global warming continues to pose a threat to Champagne, but again Stelzer ranks a far bigger issue for producers being the number of corked, stale and lightstruck Champagnes that reach the shelves and thence consumers, either because they were not in good condition when they left (some houses apparently sell their rejects, although where or under what labels is not clear), or because the corks are faulty/tainted, or due to poor handing and storage conditions.

Perhaps realising that encouragement is more likely to elicit positive change than wielding a stick, this year Stelzer discusses but does not ‘name and shame’ in a list the ‘fizzers’ caused by the wine being ‘lightstruck’ (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).

To me the Champagne houses cannot be held entirely responsible for these outcomes, especially for storage issues that occur after they leave their premises or arrive in Australia (although they can put more pressure on their agents to better manage their stocks), but cork taint is another matter.

The percentage of failure and waste of wines of any sort under cork is unacceptable. Most say it’s around 5%, but others estimate 10% – either would be farcical in the IT industry, and potentially deadly in the aviation, food or automotive industries. Imagine the public outcry and return rates if one in 20 cheeses (say) were spoilt! No retailer would stock them, not to mention the wasted energy and cost of transporting what are effectively already-damaged goods around the world.

As a champion of Stelvin screwcaps, Stelzer is anti-cork, but as occurred in 2011, he found the same ratio of one in 18 of his tasted bottles of Champagne were corked (5.5%). It’s an expensive form of Russian roulette the winemakers are playing, and has to be reduced.

Change will occur when consumers (and sommeliers and retailers) become more savvy, learn what the wines are supposed to taste like (few of us have Seltzer’s opportunities, especially for multiple bottle tastings of the same wine) and become aware that we can return such wines and receive a full refund, without threat of a stoush with an unwilling retailer.

However while the Stelvin-equivalent alternative to Champagne corks remains the crown seal (used on beer bottles) – which for most consumers is the total antithesis of the luxury of Champagne – more needs to be done. More makers are currently trialling DIAM closures (made from treated, granulated cork), and are finding the return rates are diminishing, which can only be good for all.

Add the fact that there are now very acceptable home-grown alternatives (plus good sparkling wines from New Zealand, England, Chile, cooler regions of the USA, etc), and the pressure will be on Champagne producers to lift their standards. Most makers do take the cork issue and consumer complaints seriously.

Helpfully, in The Champagne Guide 2012-2013, Stelzer includes a list of his Australian Top 40 sparkling wines, all of which are under $56, but while he recommends them anytime you are spending under $40, if you are spending more than $50, he says ‘always buy Champagne.’

Stelzer again makes a feature of wines he considers ‘stale’, meaning wines that are either ‘too old, improperly warehoused, lightstruck or some a combination’. Unlike for example old red wines, it seems that unless you are buying from a very reputable maker and seller, it’s better to stick to more recent vintages, and white rather than rosé Champagne, as the latter is more prone to light damage.

The bargain of 2011, Gimmonet, is still rated as ‘the fairest value for money of all', but their minimum price is up 50% to A$60 a bottle, still good value but perhaps reflecting an increase in demand since Stelzer’s 2011 edition.

Overall, it remains good news for Champagne consumers in Australia, as our high A$ is generally containing imported wine prices. The range of Champagnes is increasingly bewildering, and handily, Stelzer lists some major retailers at the end, including which labels they stock, their web addresses if known, and their email addresses should you wish to order online. (A list by state would help next time)

The hard copy book is slightly smaller than last year’s A4 size, but is a lot thicker. With its attractive cover it’s perhaps more designed to read at home than to lug to your nearby bottleshop or restaurant, although it could tuck into a good-sized handbag. The ebook is as portable as your iPad (or computer); it performs very well and is attractive and easy to read.

The Champagne Guide 2012/2013 has even broader global application than the 2011 edition; most of the wines and houses reviewed are available worldwide. It’s a very useful and welcome guide, particularly for those who wish they knew more about Champagne but aren’t in a position to experiment, and certainly not with hundreds of bottles!

Wine scribes James Halliday, Huon Hooke and Jancis Robinson MW highly recommended the 2011 edition, and I know more than one sommelier who could learn from the new one. Next time I order Champagne in a restaurant I’ll certainly be asking if they have a copy.

I find The Champagne Guide 2012/2013 to be a significant improvement on the 2011 edition, and I congratulate the author and all concerned. I look forward to buying my next bottle of Champagne with a great deal more knowledge and confidence – and as the author says, ‘all for less than the price of a bottle of decent Champagne’!

 

The Champagne Guide 2012/2013 by Tyson Stelzer (WinePress, Brisbane, 2011) is available in ebook format for download to computer or iPad, at a cost of A$34.95.  

The print edition (WinePress, Brisbane 2011, hc, 356 pp), retails for RRP A$49.95 + $10 postage within Australia. (Higher postage rates apply overseas). Click here for purchasing information (both editions) but please note offer below first »

VisitVineyards.com and Winepros Archive subscribers who purchase the hard cover edition will receive an ebook version free. Click here to receive your order code »

 

 

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March 08th, 2012
 
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