Tyson Stelzer: The Real Story of Champagne

Posted on Sep 21, 2016

The Champagne guide

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. AdVINEtures recently had the privilege to correspond with him about wine, specifically Champagne, given the release of the fourth edition of his 15th book, The Champagne Guide, along with the launch of his personalized Champagne Tour next month. Our only regret is that being halfway around the world meant missing out on meeting him in person. But you can bet by the passion and knowledge in his responses below we’re definitely considering a visit to Australia in the near future. Tyson, as the responses below show, not only knows his subject thoroughly, he communicates it clearly, making it both interesting and it easy to understand.

A:  Your bio is both impressive & extensive. How was your passion for wine ignited?

TS:  It’s always been the people and places of wine that have inspired me, and the marvellous and magical way in which a wine can preserve and articulate the detail of the place where it is grown and the hands that create it. There is no other product that achieves this in anything like the same way, nor that collides the vagaries of rural life and battling temperamental elements with the high-flying international superstar status of celebrated wines. It is a thrill and a privilege to tell the stories of this diverse and remarkable industry.

A: You’re a wine writer, TV presenter, wine event host & wine tour guide. How do you fit it all in & is there one aspect you favour among them?

TS: Working 100 hour weeks most weeks of the year is the first answer! The second is a super talented and hard-working Events Manager working with me effectively full time. The third is the recent realisation that books, magazines and television opportunities are great for profile but don’t pay the bills. Every year I host something like 100 public and private wine events. I love engaging with wine lovers and folk from all kinds of backgrounds and it guarantees that I don’t become too introspective or esoteric about wine – it would be all too easy as a writer to spend most of my time engaging with winemakers and industry professionals. As a communicator it’s vital to stay closely in touch with the drinking public every week of the year. Wine tours take this opportunity to the next level, engaging intimately with small groups of no more than ten guests and personally introducing them to all I love about the great wine regions of the world, in a way that isn’t available to the general tourist.

A: You’ve written about all types of wine but your current release is The Champagne Guide. How long has this book been in the making and who is your target audience?

Book CoverTS: The Champagne Guide is now in its fourth edition and had its genesis in Champagne in the summer of 2010. I was captivated by the wines and the stories of the region, and surprised that no publications in English offered up-to-date reviews and recommendations. This gave birth to my inaugural edition in 2011, intended as a true, frank and up-to-the-minute buyer’s guide to point drinkers who know nothing about champagne in the right direction, while providing an insight for champagne fanatics into houses and cuvées with details never before reported.

A:  In your opinion, what is it about Champagne that makes this region/wine so studied?

TS: Of all the world’s most famous and celebrated wines, less is written about champagne than any other. There is no beverage that speaks of celebration more universally than champagne, traversing cultures and languages to toast everything from christenings to coronations. Of Europe’s most highly prized benchmarks, none is more readily available and more affordable across the globe than champagne. There is much to celebrate, much that champagne’s eager drinkers are thirsty to learn, and I count it a great privilege to bring the real stories of this enchanting place to the world.

A:  What do you think separates your book from the many written about this storied region?

TS: There is a romance to Champagne quite unlike any other wine land on earth. The real romance of champagne is a tough love. It’s about a desperate struggle to root vines into stark white stone. About grappling for survival in the most harrowing winegrowing climate on the planet. And about transforming an insipidly austere and unpalatably acidic juice into the most celebrated beverage in the world. This is the real story of Champagne. It’s time the true Champagne is brought out from ancient caverns and into the gentle light of day. Every year I scour Champagne, clambering up vineyard slopes, exploring cellars, tasting from tank, barrel and bottle to discover a place of more intricate detail and wildly contrasting extremes than I have ever imagined. All that counts for me is taste, and the places, procedures and people that bring it to life. My book gets under the surface of Champagne to unearth the terroirs, the grapes, the craft and the hands that make the wine in your glass smell, taste and bubble like no other on the planet.

A: What has been the biggest challenge in putting this book together?

Tyson StelzerTS: Every year I have to fight my way through the froth and bubble of the most overmarketed wine region in the world to unearth the truth behind every champagne I review. The real story of Champagne has for too long been lost behind guarded brands and marketing frippery. Contrary to everything hopeful marketers would have us believe, the true romance of champagne is not one of glamorous estates, illustrious histories, elaborate packaging, fabricated prestige, gushing rhetoric, stratospheric pricing, flirtations with royalty, sightings with supermodels, or websites with more animated glitz that you can point a cursor at. It’s a romance that goes beyond the bubbles, beyond the atmosphere of ancient chalk cellars and chalk-infused vineyards gracing gentle slopes, beyond even a people as dignified and determined as the champagnes they devote their lives to raising.

A: What is your view on ceasing to classify villages as Grand Cru and Premier Cru?

TS: In Champagne’s appellation system, vineyard classification is based around the ‘échelle des crus’ — a  crude village-by-village growth system established in 1919. Seventeen villages are designated ‘grand cru’, and 41 ‘premier cru’. If a village is rated grand cru, so is every vineyard in its bounds, and fetches a price accordingly. Such simplification is clearly nonsensical.

Pierre Gimonnet is one of the Côte des Blancs’ most fastidious growers and thoughtful blenders, controlling 28 hectares of largely old vines, mainly in the heart of Cuis, Cramant, Chouilly, Oger and Vertus. ‘We have 12 grand cru vineyards, but we have no grand cru blends, because the wines are better balanced when they’re blended with premier crus,’ explains Didier Gimonnet. This deprives him of the right to label his wines ‘grand cru’ and command grand cru prices.  ‘I am going to be politically incorrect,’ he warns. ‘There are 319 villages in Champagne, but the best wines come from just 20 or 30 and no more. Within these villages, you need to be in the heart of the terroir. Cramant, for instance, is grand cru, but only 150 hectares of its 230 hectares produce exceptional wine. Cuis is premier cru and it is not a great terroir for exceptional cuvées, but there are a few hectares here which are of good quality.’

Another famous grower suggests the 80 hectares around Mont Aigu are the only reason Chouilly’s 420 hectares are rated grand cru. This is equally true in the premier cru village of Vertus. ‘Of course, the grand crus are the best places on average,’ explains Pierre Larmandier. ‘But my best sites in Vertus are better than the worst in Cramant.’

At a time of crisis in the region in 1992, the large houses called in a group of young winegrowers, chaired by Pierre Larmandier and Jérôme Prévost. The two presented their approach in the vineyard and proposed a system of paying for grapes according to quality and not just volume. The proposal was written off on the insistence that there was no way of measuring quality. Their case for a more precise classification was dismissed as a scandal. ‘In the end, we were fed up as no one understood, so we decided to make our own champagne instead,’ Larmandier reports. Thus began two of champagne’s most celebrated growers.

The designations of premier cru and grand cru are historically based on convenience for the houses, who might purchase fruit from 20 or 30 growers in the same village, at the same price. ‘The problem of Champagne is that the grower is the exception,’ Larmandier laments. ‘The big houses and cooperatives are not interested in going further with a classification, so we’re wasting our time because we are only very small.’

It’s about time Champagne woke up to the reality that its 19,000 growers are no longer the exception, with more than one-quarter now producing champagne of their own. And it’s not only the small growers on lesser crus who are blatantly ignoring champagne’s antiquated vineyard classification.

Billecart-Salmon’s single-hectare Clos Saint-Hilaire produces one of Champagne’s finest blanc de noirs from the premier cru village of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. ‘So what if it isn’t grand cru?’ says Antoine Roland-Billecart. ‘Sometimes it’s better to have an old vine in a premier cru.’ In the neighbouring village of Aÿ, Bollinger agrees, with its glorious flagships La Grande Année and La Grande Année Rosé each containing a portion of premier cru fruit.

The idea permeates all the way to the top. Krug is another prestige cuvée not made from 100% grand cru vineyards. Instead, all of its wines are blind tasted and the house makes its own classification every vintage. No wonder Billecart-Salmon, Bollinger, Krug, Pierre Gimonnet and Larmandier-Bernier, spanning the full spectrum of style and price, make some of the finest wines in Champagne today.

Even Champagne’s largest players are joining the chorus of support. ‘I have a dream,’ Veuve Clicquot’s Chef de Cave, Dominique Demarville, tells me. ‘I hope that one day we will pay for grapes according to quality, not according to volume and vineyard designation.’ If Champagne were to give due respect to its growers and its finest houses, and seriously look at its existing territory, it would radically revise its crude village-by-village cru system and assess each and every vineyard in its own right — just like its neighbours, Burgundy and Alsace. I am told such a reassessment will never happen. It seems the credibility of Champagne’s cru status will remain in tatters.

A: Do you think any sparkling wines from other regions are approaching the quality of Champagne?

Glass of bubblesTS: Australia’s coolest regions and vineyards in England are producing sparkling wines that rival entry and some medium-tier champagnes, but at the top end, no sparkling region on earth has yet attained the lofty heights of Champagne. Australian and English sparkling wines are not champagne, and I love that they don’t try to be. They are unique expressions of their own, distinctive terroirs, a world away from those of Champagne. The reason I adore Australian sparkling wine so much that I devote a decent amount of my year to it is because it possesses a personality that is inimitable, the signature of a vast and temperamental land. I am often asked if I ever choose to drink Australian sparkling wine. The answer is a resounding yes! All the time. Under AUD $40 it’s almost impossible to find a champagne worth drinking. Yet Australia produces a plethora of truly great sparkling wines in this space. And let’s be honest, we can’t all afford to pop champagne every night.

A: Is the rise of grower Champagnes having any influence on how the big houses are making or marketing Champagne?

TS: The stark distinction drawn around the world between Champagne négociant houses, cooperatives and grower producers is perplexing. Champagne drinkers who pop only the household names of the big brands miss an important dimension of the great diversity of champagne’s finest offerings. Those who hunt fanatically for nothing but small growers miss an equally exciting experience. The very notion of imposing such a division undermines the complex and diverse relationships between champagne brands and the vineyards from which they are sourced. In Champagne itself, there is no such segregation, and its very suggestion is vigorously dismissed by both sides.

The lines in Champagne are blurring. ‘Once upon a time, the houses did not own vineyards,’ explains Pol Roger Managing Director, Laurent d’Harcourt. ‘Now they’re becoming more like growers. Meanwhile, growers are sourcing from many villages rather than just their own, and becoming more like houses. Many cooperatives now have their own brands and are acting as négociants.’

‘With the diversity of Champagne’s regions and the rise of the growers, it’s increasingly important for us to produce more interesting, small-production wines,’ points out Antoine Roland-Billecart. The result of this philosophy was the creation of Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Sous Bois, a recent addition to its portfolio, entirely fermented in oak barrels.

Within some larger houses, there is good argument that distinction should be made even for individual cuvées. Louis Roederer’s non-vintage blends include 45% négociant fruit, but its vintage wines are assembled exclusively from estate sources. ‘For the vintage wines, I do not say Roederer is a champagne house,’ says Chef de Cave Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon. ‘We are three growers, one in Montagne de Reims, one in Vallée de la Marne and one in Côte des Blancs.’

A:  Collectors have pushed the prices of top wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux & Napa through the roof yet many tete de cuvees are still relatively affordable. Is Champagne likely to be the new collector craze?

TS: Champagne prestige cuvées increased in volume globally by 13.5% and in value by 20.3% in 2015, now representing 4.9% of all bottles of champagne. Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (the force behind Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart and Krug) is rallying its sales teams to ramp up their prestige focus in 2016. Prestige champagne remains the most affordable and most accessible of all flagship global benchmark wine styles. When was the last time you found a mature First Growth Bordeaux or Grand Cru Burgundy for the same price as Dom Pérignon?

A: When are various Champagnes ready to drink (Non Vintages, Vintages)?

Bucket of bubblesTS: Twenty-year-old champagne is one of my favourite indulgences, and a particularly good vintage wine or prestige cuvée will comfortably go the distance. Generally, aim to drink vintage champagnes between eight and 15 years after vintage, and non-vintage wines within five years. Most entry-level NVs have little to gain from bottle ageing, but exceptions are noted throughout this guide. Late-disgorged vintages are held on lees in the cellar and can improve over many decades, disgorged shortly prior to release.

Late-disgorged champagne is generally best consumed within a few years of disgorgement, as it doesn’t tend to cellar confidently post-disgorgement. ‘Disgorgement is a shock for a wine, like a human going into surgery,’ explains Antoine Roland-Billecart. ‘When you’re young, you recover much better. When an old champagne is disgorged, it may oxidise.’ This is why Billecart disgorges its museum stock at the same time as its standard releases. Different houses have different philosophies, and there are always exceptions. I’ve tasted very old late-disgorged bottles that have held up magnificently five years after disgorgement.

Champagne spends the first years of its life in a dark, humid, chalk cellar under Champagne at a constant temperature of 8–10ºC, so it will get a rude shock if it’s thrust into a warmer environment. Champagne is highly fussy when it comes to proper cellaring conditions and, unless you live somewhere particularly cold, if you don’t have a climate-controlled cellar, err on the side of caution and drink it within a few years.

Champagne in clear glass bottles is remarkably light-sensitive, so keep it in the dark at all times. If it comes in a box, bag or cellophane wrap, keep it covered until you serve it. See page 44 for more on the effects of light on champagne. Of recent seasons, the champagne vintages most worthy of extended age are 2002, 2004, 2012 and, most of all, 2008.

A: How do you think climate change will affect Champagne?

TS: If you believed all the commentary, you’d have to conclude that the Champagne we know and love is all but doomed. Global warming spells Armageddon for the region that has built a wine style around its cold climate. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the average temperature of Champagne’s growing season was a steady 14.3ºC. In the 1990s, this increased to 15ºC. What of the 2000s? Could it have risen by the same amount again, to 15.7ºC? Surely not double, to 16.4ºC? Wrong. The latest 10-year average in Champagne has shot up to a whopping 16.6ºC.

What effect on viticulture? Ripeness levels in Champagne have risen, in spite of an increase of 50% in yields. Acidity has dropped and pH has risen. For the technocrats, natural alcohol has jumped to 9.9% over the past decade, from 9.6% over the previous 30 years, total acidity has dropped from 13.5g/L to 11.38g/L (tartaric), and pH has risen from 3.05 to 3.10. These numbers do not spell good news for Champagne.

‘There is a major effect of global warming in Champagne. It is a fact,’ declares Dom Pérignon Chef de Cave, Richard Geoffroy. ‘And it’s been around for longer than you think. We’ve been looking at the data and the crucial point of inflection was in the mid- 80s.’ Harvest is now three weeks earlier than when Napoléon Chef de Cave Jean-Philippe Moulin arrived in Champagne in 1977. ‘A century ago, Hautvillers would have three months of snow, and all the kids would toboggan in the vineyards,’ Moulin told me, as we surveyed the snowless village in the middle of the unseasonably warm winter of 2013.

The last typical harvest in Champagne was in 1988, with every season since delivering greater richness and less minerality, according to Patrick Le Brun at Le Brun-Servenay in Avize. In Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Laurent Bénard of L. Bénard-Pitois is also concerned by declining acidity and mineral expression. ‘We have too much sun in summer and the growing season is too short,’ he reports. ‘My parents never harvested in August, even in the hot season of 1976, but I have harvested in August in 2003, 2007 and 2011.’

‘The year 2003 was the perfect description of a nightmare!’ says Veuve Clicquot Winemaking Development Director, Cyril Brun, who rushed back from his honeymoon in Australia and drove straight from the airport to the vineyard in the wake of Champagne’s hottest summer in history. ‘Even in warmer years like 1985 and 1976, we still had a much better balance than in 2003. July and August burnt the acid out of the grapes.’

Champagne had more defined seasons 20 years ago, and it’s more difficult to produce flavour ripeness without high sugar levels today, reports Didier Gimonnet of Pierre Gimonnet & Fils in Cuis. ‘I believe that Champagne’s extreme climate is essential for the vines to suffer a little in order to produce typicity of champagne character,’ he says. ‘Without this, our wines are rich and smooth, but this is not the style of champagne.’

Not everyone in Champagne is convinced. Krug winemaker Julie Cavil points out that the hot seasons at the beginning of the 1990s, 1976 and 1949 were all declared vintages and that Champagne hasn’t experienced exclusively warmer vintages this decade. The talented and well-travelled grower producer Gilles Dumangin agrees. ‘I can see nothing now to indicate the climate is changing,’ he says. He recalls years when he was young when the climate was very cool, and speaks of seasons when his father, Jacky, was young when it was very hot. ‘This is the climate, it goes up and down. It’s nothing more than microclimate changes.’

Temperature rise in itself is not the big concern in Champagne’s changing climate. The real problem is that the weather is becoming more extreme and more unpredictable. Winters are now longer, wetter and warmer; summers are shorter, hotter and more erratic. There’s more rainfall, changed rainfall patterns and more violent storms, hail and frost. Humidity is on the rise, as are strong winds. And 2011 served up the entire onslaught. After a challenging season of spring heatwave, wet summer and intermittent hail storms, the season culminated in the second-earliest harvest since 1822. This all equates to more pests and diseases, more risk of exposure to spring frosts and summer  heat, and more danger from severe rot.

In 2012, the Côte des Bar was savaged by one of the worst hailstorms in Champagne history. At Fleury Père & Fils in Courteron, Jean-Sebastien Fleury missed the hail but copped everything else: multiple frosts, rains disrupting flowering, mildew, then a cold summer followed by scorching heat of 41ºC. ‘It was a very unusual season, with the worst conditions you could have,’ he reports. In nearby Bar-sur-Seine, Devaux Chef de Cave, Michel Parisot, suffered the same fate. ‘Some years are warmer and some years are not,’ he says. ‘But the change we’ve seen in the past decade is that storms are always more violent now.’

Much has been written on the changing face of Champagne, and the conclusion has not been optimistic: Champagne as we know it is in dire trouble. Should we believe the doomsayers or the marketers, or let the wines speak for themselves? Even in the rollercoaster of recent vintages, there are signs of hope for Champagne’s future. The 2008 harvest is the most resounding evidence that Champagne is still able to pull off all its old tricks — a vintage of classic finesse and tightly-clenched acidity that looks set to rival anything of the past two decades. For all the inconsistencies of 2011, Demarville upholds the season as evidence that Champagne is still capable of producing strong acidity. And, most recently, the 2012 vins clairs of some houses could rank this vintage ahead of 2002.

For Laurent Champs at Vilmart & Cie, the wonderful acidities of 2012 surpass even the great 1996. The present and the future of Champagne hinge on the quality of the 309 million bottles it churns out every year. There are growers and houses in Champagne who are raising their game in the wake of global warming, through stringent standards and carefully managed yields in the vineyard, and fanatical attention to detail in the winery. Those who don’t subscribe to such philosophies will likely fall by the wayside.

For this, Champagne will only be a better place. The challenges presented by the coming decades in Champagne look set to widen the gap between those who really care, and those who are only out to make a quick buck. The contrast, it seems, is already stark. For now, it appears Champagne is far from losing its sparkle. Yet.

A: With Taittinger’s plan to produce in Southern England, do you think we’ll see more Champagne houses looking for alternative vineyards given growing demand? Will this help or hinder Champagne in general?

TS: It’s exciting to see champagne houses pushing production out into Australia, New Zealand, England, the Napa, even China and India, but these are not exercises intended to address growing demand for champagne. Nor do I anticipate they ever will. While production outside of the region will continue to grow at a modest pace, it is Champagne’s plans to grow production within the region itself that are most significant in both scale and potential impact.

Ever spiralling yields cannot be the solution for Champagne to meet future demand, but more vineyard area is? Under the proposed expansion of the region, individual plots are currently being examined for their suitability for grape growing, primarily in the Côte des Bar and Vitry-le-François, to the south-east of Chalons-sur-Marne. It will likely not be until 2018 that all the results are assessed and new boundaries are laid. The financial crises of recent years have taken the pressure off supply, allowing timelines to be relaxed, with the earliest vineyard plantings not expected until 2020, and the first wines some years later.

This is now a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if ’. ‘Everyone in Champagne agrees that the region needs to expand,’ says Charles Heidsieck Chef de Cave Cyril Brun. ‘Who knows what the Chinese and Indian markets will be like in 20 years’ time? Some people want the pace of change to be fast, others want it to be slow.’

Pol Roger’s Laurent d’Harcourt believes the expansion of the appellation has been well studied. ‘The Champagne region did not grow between 1950 and 2010, and yet its production increased from 30 million to more than 300 million bottles,’ he says. Proponents argue that the proposed additions are situated in gaps inside, rather than outside, the perimeter of existing Champagne regions. ‘There is still huge potential for land that has been  unexploited,’ points out Brun, ‘sections between vineyards with the same soils and exposure, which have not borne grapes for centuries.’ It was once equally profitable to grow carrots as it was to grow grapes in Champagne.  No longer, and no surprise that everyone wants a slice of the booming champagne business.

Many unknowns remain. Will land owners speculate on their newly zoned real estate to make a quick profit? And just how long will it be before stability is finally regained in the region? It’s not too late for Champagne to get this right, if quality is championed ahead of volume.

A: Your new Champagne tour focuses on exclusivity & intimacy (ie limited to 10 guests & access to top champagne houses/growers). Can you tell us more about your Champagne tour and what one can expect?

TS: Planning to visit the top Champagne houses is not only challenging, it’s impossible. Champagne is notoriously closed to visitors. Its top houses do not accept guests. There are no cellar doors, and all but a few of the largest estates do not offer tours or tastings. This is why I am inviting guests to join me on an intimate, behind-the-scenes tour of Champagne. I will personally introduce them to the most celebrated houses and growers, escorting them through their ancient cellars, elegant private dining rooms, lauded vineyards and tasting their finest cuvées. My Champagne Tour is an opportunity to experience the finest and most exclusive champagne houses, growers, restaurants and accommodation that the region has to offer, in the intimate company of only ten guests. Every cellar and winery visit and tasting on the tour is exclusive, private and not otherwise available to the public.

A: It looks like this is the first time you’ve done this tour, is that correct? Can you tell us the dates/pricing & do you expect to make this an annual tour?

TS: We are about to take our first tour group to Champagne next month. We have two tours scheduled for 2017, with limited places available. Our Five Day Tour will run from 21 to 26 May 2017 and our Seven Day Tour will be from 3 to 10 September 2017. Our Five Day Tour is AUD $11,995 per guest twin share and our Seven Day Tour is AUD $19,995 per guest twin share. For full details, please contact me at stelzer@winepress.com.au.

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