Almost three years ago we interviewed Tyson Stelzer. To give you some background about Tyson we opened our article with “If you’re interested in wine and the name Tyson Stelzer doesn’t sound familiar living in the northern hemisphere, trust us it soon will. His resume presents very notable credentials including current International Wine & Spirit Wine Communicator of the Year. Not just content to being a wine writer, he uses all mediums to reach wine enthusiasts worldwide including authoring numerous articles and books, speaking at wine events worldwide, as well as hosting his own television series.”
Since then he has published his fifth edition of The Champagne Guide, subtitled The Definitive Guide to Champagne. We purchased the hard cover edition in Canada for CDN $50. This is old school (read “classy”) hard cover publishing: stiff cardboard front and back covers, with plastic coated pages that show off the excellent photography with precision and will outlast most of its readers. At 368 pages it is a comprehensive treatment of its subject. The writing is geared toward a broad audience, with plenty of technical talk that will satisfy those seeking substance as well as a glossary that will help the novitiates understand.
The book begins with nine brief chapters that provide a solid overview of Champagne. The first, “Under the Surface” talks about the mineral-infused, chalky soils of the region that are such a big component of Champagne’s differentiation and history. Subsequent chapters are a guide to understanding and enjoying Champagne as well as understanding his scoring/ranking system. He rates each of the wines he reviews using a variation of the 100-point system, originally developed by Robert Parker.
It is important not to gloss over Tyson’s explanation of his scores. Parker, The Wine Spectator, The Wine Enthusiast and others who use the system score most of their reviews between 80 and 100. Wines falling below 80 are mediocre at best, not flawed, but not worthy of recommendation either. Wines below 60 are deemed unacceptable. Parker and others group their scores in deciles or quintiles to describe in words what the numeric scores are meant to convey. Such as Parker: “90 – 95: An outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character. In short, these are terrific wines.” Or Wine Spectator “85 – 89: Very Good”. Tyson provides a descriptor for every single score from 100 down to 80. We have some small difficulty with the 100-point system generally. While it helps create a ranking hierarchy for the quality of one wine relative to the next, it implies a precision and lack of subjectivity that we do not think most tasters are capable of delivering upon (certainly we are not). However, it is certainly well enough accepted. But Tyson’s scale is quite different than that of the mainstream oeno-press. While 80 is generally bestowed upon wines that are acceptable but not remarkable, an 80 from Tyson is “Horrid. You’ve been warned”. A 90 in Tyson’s lexicon is “A good wine that I like. 7% of Champagnes tasted. Only buy if it is cheap”. Wine Spectator thinks 90-point wines are “Outstanding” and Parker agrees as per the quote above. So if you are used to reading scores from the mainstream wine press, as we are and we assume that most of Tyson’s readers are as well, you will need to recalibrate to his scores. Tyson compresses in a range of 80 to 100 what the others use a span of 50 to 100 to describe.
The majority of the book is dedicated to Tyson’s review of 93 of Champagne’s most important wineries. He assigns 70 of the 93 houses with a numerical rating, this time out of 10, not 100. The houses are rated on their wines currently in the marketplace and a significant weighting is given towards each house’s NV Brut, while vintage wines and Tete de Cuvees hold lesser sway. Given that the NV Brut dominates the production of most houses this strikes us as sound reasoning. The houses receive ratings from 5/10 to 10/10. His rationale he explains be referring to the 100-point equivalent. Why not rate these houses on the same 100-point scale? To add to the muddle, he provides no explanation as to why over a quarter of the wineries received no rating at all. Given that it is the “Hall of Honour” one would think that the winery simply did not make the cut. However, when names like Armand de Brignac, Collet, Mumm, Nicholas Feuillatte, and Pommery, among others, don’t make the list, we are left confused as to what the Hall of Honour is supposed to be saying.
His 2-page chapter “Top Tips For Buying Champagne” is right on point. He is brutally honest in telling you what to buy in the marketplace today. He recommends readers shell out for vintage Champagnes, the 5% or less of all Champagnes that come from a single growing season. He touts the 2008 vintage and encourages readers to look for NV Bruts that are based upon the 2012 vintage. Given the lousy 2011 vintage, and the not much better 2010, this is very sound advice. He recommends spending up generally and specifically spending up on rose and tête de cuvée. He says to focus on the two top regions, the Montagne de Reims and the Cote des Blancs. He advises to get to know the grower Champagnes. The one thing he advises against is jumping on the low dosage bandwagon, a trend of lower is better is not in all cases correct. We think his points are each spot on and we will be heeding his advice.
He provides a thorough review of the quality of each vintage from 1995 through 2016. A very helpful chapter and information not easily found elsewhere outside of simple numerical scores. He also overviews the 5 sub-regions as well as providing an easy to understand description of the various steps in making Champagne. Chapters are also dedicated to the very practical tasks of matching Champagne with food as well as serving temperatures and proper stemware.
The 93 Champagne houses he reviews are for the most part given a thorough treatment. The list is comprehensive and well curated. All of the Grande Marques and the big houses and co-ops receive substantial treatment. The growers are well covered too, with more pages to the larger and more influential RMs. Jacques Selosse and Jacquesson, both highly influential growers, each receive 5 pages. Smaller, less well know estates such as Paul Goerg and Mouzon-Leroux receive only a page. The reader is given some background and history and introduced to the winemaker at each estate. Important information such as vineyard practices are covered in fine detail. Uniquely, Tyson has received permission from many winemakers to shadow them for a whole day during harvest and pressing. This allows him to give his readers a level of insight into the place, the people and the process that few other authors can. The reader learns about viticultural practices used, such as organic, biodynamic, or conventional farming and other practices such as sustainable farming and lute raisonee. Tyson describes if cover crops are used mid-row, the extent to which the plot is green-harvested, if copper, sulphur or chemicals are used in the vineyard.
He is equally detailed about practices in the winery. We gain insight into who avoids malo-lactic fermentation and why, the use of oak fermenters and barrels for ageing, how chaptalisation and how much battonage is used. The philosophy behind dosage is explored as is whether the cuvee is dosed with sugar or juice. Picking dates and intended ripeness are discussed as well as if the house seeks a more oxidative or a more reductive style. All of which makes for a very satisfying and informative read for the aficionado as well as an understandable treatise for those with moderate understanding. The book is not aimed at the beginner level.
Choosing the more expensive hard cover format was an interesting choice to us. Hardcovers are expensive but they last a lifetime. Since over 300 of the pages in this book will become stale-dated in a couple of years when the sixth edition comes out with the reviews of the new releases, we would have opted for a cheaper, paperback version, could we have found one. Still, we bought the book and are glad we did and would recommend it to any other fellow Champagne lover. In his epilogue, Tyson states: “…I have come to an incredible respect for this place and its people, a love that draws me back time after time, discovering a magic that leaves me in wide-eyed wonder time and time again. If I can bring a glimpse of this wonder to the champagne lovers of this world, I have achieved my aspiration.” Aspiration achieved.