Champagne is another country. They do things differently there.

Yield, for wine, is how much you make from a unit of land.  Among many wine lovers there is a perhaps naive view: high yield bad, low yield good. The idea is that the less fruit you take per acre or hectare, the more concentrated or intense its flavour and this is a universally good thing for wine.  But the waters, if not the wine, muddy once you investigate.

Most really good harvest vintage years in places like Bordeaux and Burgundy, tend to have pretty high yields.  Not all that much of a surprise perhaps; good weather often means a lot of ripe fruit.  And then remember that ‘planting density’, the number of vines per hectare or acre, is going to make a big difference to yield.  If you have 10,000 vines per hectare, the yield is going to be much higher than if you have 5,000.  And the age of the vines can be crucial too.  Older vines make much less juice in the berries, even if it is more concentrated.  Finally, sadly in many cases, factor in the yo-yo nightmares of growing anything: disease, frost, hail, drought, even forest fires in some countries.

Champagne, or at least the crushed juice it is made from, needs higher yields ideally than grapes for other still wines.  The low vigour thin soils (meaning with low fertility) have set a tradition for high density planting, at about 8,000 vines per hectare, which is going to up the volume ante.  The champenois have argued juice for champagne needs to be more flavour neutral than wines made for fruity emphasis.  The vital complexity of champagne comes from the cellar ageing of very mineral, blended wines, not tutti frutti.  But even so, when you learn the (EU set) total maximum annual legal yield in grapes set for Champagne is 15,500kg/ha and work out what that would mean for a still red or white wine – over 100hls/ha – then it seems very high. Very high say compared to Bordeaux, where we’re told the yield is half that.

Key Point Number 1.

First, there is an annual decision by Comité Champagne (new name for the CIVC ruling body) to set the base yield harvest maximum for that specific year.  This is the maximum amount of grapes that can be picked and turned into champagne immediately, or at least the process right up to to bottling before aging.  This is always below the absolute maximum of 15,500kg/ha set by the EU and is based on the state of the market. The annual base maximum is set as late as possible, usually in July before the harvest.

This maximum used to be a bun fight between the opposing interests of the growers who own most of the vineyard, and the houses, who have to buy the most expensive grapes in the world. In any year, obviously, the growers want to be able to harvest and sell as many grapes as possible; the houses want to buy just what they need and no more.  Since the global financial crisis, much of the political wrangle has been sucked out of this annual ritual by setting up, from 2010 onwards, a more objective statistical operation of Comité Champagne called the ‘observatoire économique’.  The yield figure is arrived at by cross-analysis of sales over 12 months, the total stock of reserve wines and bottles aging in the cellars, and finally, predicted sales.

Why such a need in Champagne for an ‘economic’ or market maximum yield?  The region is not unique in this; both Port and the Sherry producers do the same. Champagne is aged 2-4 years in the producers’ cellars on average before it can be sold. What is harvested and bottled in year x, will not be offered for sale, mostly, until sometime in x+3. But supplying demand in x+3 means calibrating what you make now with what you think that future demand will be, factoring in any unsold stocks from not getting it quite right in the previous two years.  That’s why the grapes you pick now need to be based on a fair idea of what you might sell three years ahead.  Champagne is mostly a ‘price elastic’ good; demand takes a hit in hard times.  Aligning production with demand means trying to second guess the economic cycle.

Comité Champagne have just revealed the yield for harvest 2014, set on July 16th: 10,500kg/ha, quite a cautious small rise given the average set from 2001-10 was 12,285kg/ha, with the maximum in 2013 being 10,000kg/ha, and this reflects the slow pace of the current global economic recovery, particularly continued stagnation in Champagne’s domestic market, France.

But this maximum of 10,500kg/ha or base yield can be increased by producers up to a limit called the ‘rendement butoir’ (top limit).  The difference between the base limit and the top limit is made up by grapes whose product goes into the ‘reserve’ held against each grower’s name if they sell their grapes to the big houses or coops or held by the grower themselves if they make their own champagne.  This ‘reserve’, with ever-changing rules, has existed for a long time in Champagne.  It is a buffer against shortage or surplus of wine to give steady supply in a northern region beset by bad weather and big swings in annual harvests. And all of this Reserve will eventually add to stocks of the reserve wines (wines from vintages older than the last harvest) which are used to give the vital complexity to champagne blends.

The Deal in 2014

In a nutshell (wake up at the back!), here’s the Comité Champagne deal for 2014:

  • Base yield: 10,500kg/ha for beginning making champagne now
  • 400kg/ha of this is from existing Reserve stocks or 500kg/ha if 2014 sales go  over 307m bottles.  So in effect, you can pick only 10,100kg/ha to begin making  champagne now.
  • A maximum (‘butoir’) over the top limit picked of 3,100kg/ha extra – ie a top limit of 13,200kg/ha (10,100 picked plus an extra 3,100) which has to go into the Reserve compulsorily if it is picked.  But the amount put into Reserve cannot allow the Reserve to go over its maximum of 8,000kg/ha.

So, if my crop is 12,000kg/ha, 400kg/ha of this is already accounted for and will be made into champagne from my Reserve of stocked vins clairs – the wines that have completed their first fermentation.  Which leaves 11,600kg/ha.  But that is still 1100kg/ha over the base yield so it has to, compulsorily, go into my Reserve.  My Reserve presently has 5,000kg/ha left in it after the 400kg/ha mentioned above has been used.  So I can stock away 5,000 plus 1100 kg/ha to bring my Reserve to 6,100kg/ha, still well within the 8,000kg/ha limit.  There, easy!

In practice, the grapes in Reserve have of course been made into liquid still wine – the ‘vins clairs’ and this is how they are stored until used in future blends when permission is given by Comité Champagne, the constant overlord and record keeper.

So yield is a tricky thing in champagne.  It’s a bit technical and the mind can wander.  But we’re not finished yet.  You might wonder why Champagne measures yield so far in kg/ha, effectively bunch weight, not the wine made.  And that is because Champagne is uniquely the only wine region in the world (although copied now by Franciacorta in Italy) that controls yield twice; first via the weight of fruit and secondly by the amount of juice and its type that can be separated from the fruit at the press.

Key point number 2.

Yield is only partly set by picking; yield in Champagne is also set a second time, at the press.

Champagne must aim for great delicacy of texture in the mouth.  There is already high acidity and the bubbling mousse, two big facets of mouthfeel.  The ideal of a creamily delicate mousse is partly met later by the long aging on the second lees at an ideal 10-14C, which is directly related to tiny fine bubbles.  But retaining fresh acid and extracting as little as possible of microscopic solids from the grape pulp and skins is fundamental. The grapes for champagne are less ripe so far north than other southerly regions, and have a tendency to give astringent compounds from pressed skin and pulp if not pressed very gently indeed.

So the amount of juice that can be pressed from the solid grapes is the second crucial control over yield.  The ratio rules are pretty simple – 102L of juice from 160kg of grapes, maximum. A basic press load might often be 4,000kg of grapes and 2,550L can be extracted, the best juice from the first 2-3 press cycles being called the ‘cuvée’, or 2,050L. In practice, all the juice has to be pressed but is separated into two quality fractions, this first, the ‘cuvée’ and the second, the ‘taille’.  The second inferior fraction makes up parts of the blend of lesser, lower quality champagnes which have less freshness, age quicker because they have more oxidisable grape compounds in them and have a coarser texture.  If the producer does not want to use all or some the ‘taille’ it can be sold off.

The ratio of 102L from 160kg is a yield of roughly 63.75% of bunch weight into separated juice.  Champagne made from this year’s (2014) effective maximum yield of 10,100kg/ha (remember 400kg is already counted from the reserve) would therefore go on to make finished champagne at roughly 67hls/ha – the final volume in litres will always be a little more than the notional 63.75%, because chaptalisation will make a little more volume, more volume is made from the addition of the yeast/sugar to provoke the second fermentation in bottle and the final wine will be lighter once heavier sweet juice is converted into lighter alcohol and so makes more litres than the figure in original kilos.

Over the last 15 or so years, Champagne’s real yield, outlined in the process above, has averaged 65-75hls/ha, which for such a densely planted vineyard does not seem so bad in the face of occasional charges that yields are too high for the highest quality.

In fact about the same as Bordeaux.

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I admire, drink and promote many so-called ‘grower’ champagnes.  But there is often a slim grasp of the facts and concept out there.  Some say ‘grower’ is the bees knees of ‘terroir’ and authenticity and dismiss the famous ‘grandes marques’ houses.  Others reject ‘grower’ as rustic and overrated and follow only the big name houses.  It can be a dialogue of the deaf which divides champagne into a deadly dualism with one of these worlds often banished to the outer darkness.  It’s time there was less crass simplicity and more clarity.

1  Most ‘grower’ champagne is not made by the growers and not with their own grapes.

Some 58% (2013 figures), the majority of ‘grower’ champagne, is coop members’ identical blended ‘soup’ on which they put their own brand label.  The coop growers RCs (or Récoltant Coopérateurs’) have grown the grapes but the wine is made for them at the local coop and their grapes are pooled into a coop blend.  They are usually selling the same wines as their neighbours, but with different labels or branding.  This ‘coop clone’ champagne can be decent but is rarely high quality and often mediocre.  But if other wine regions sold the same wine like this, but with different producer labels, there would be an international outcry.  Champagne does it but few abroad seem to know or realise how the RC system works, even within the wine trade.  This is no shock revelation, yet an eerie silence reigns.

2 The term ‘grower’ romanticises small champagne producers

It presents them as artisanal horny-handed sons and daughters of toil, one American critic even calling it ‘farmer fizz.’ This is hopeless urban condescension in many cases. This imagery may please hipsters and help turn some grower champagnes into cult wines with inflated prices.  But champagne with straw in its mouth is no more near the mark than the sometimes overdone glitz and glamour imagery of the global brand champagne ‘houses’.  The best grower champagnes depend more on originality in vitculture, winemaking and technical expertise than the hands-on traditional graft of the artisan farmer.  Even growing top grapes these days is a matter of science and technique.  To stereotype and glorify peasant-farmer trappings leaves the field of sophisticated imagery to the big ‘houses’.

3  Only a fraction of so-called ‘grower champagne’ is high quality

In the same way, but a fraction of the wines of the big global brands is truly outstanding fine wine. Basic to being a candidate for ‘grower’ quality, but just the starting point, is that the domaine is totally self-sufficient: its own land, only its own grapes, and makes everything itself.  But of these RMs (Récoltants Manipulants’, (42% or 1,951 of growers in 2013), probably only roughly 150 are making truly high quality wine at present.  Often, to be noticed, domaine champagne needs to overachieve.

4 ‘Domaine’ or ‘Single Estate’ champagne is the best term for the true ‘grower’  champagnes.

Only RMs should qualify. ’Domaine’ is the term used for a proper wine estate universally by critics, producers and wine lovers worldwide and should be adopted in Champagne.  It expresses the integrity of using only one’s own grapes from one’s own land and making all the wine yourself under your own control.  Already many top champagne ‘growers’, use the name ‘domaine’.

5 We should stop using the term ‘house’ and ‘grower’ interchangably.

Critics, marketeers and sales people often conflate these terms and obscure a vital distinction.  No matter how much of champagne’s vines the houses own (only 10%) they are not self-sufficient and nearly all purchase grapes they have not grown themselves. This is the true definition of a house or ‘negociant’. (NM): a producer who can buy in the raw material to make the wine and usually does.

6  Grower champagnes do not automatically taste of ‘terroir’.

The concept of ‘terroir’ in wine is fragile and poorly established.  Wines do not have ‘terroir’ just because the grapes come from a limited and identifiable vineyard area.  Terroir is not conferred automatically by origin or intent before the wine is made; it must show tangibly in the taste of the wine.  The wines must have a taste unique, characteristic, specific to that vineyard or district.  But many commentators merely assert this in vague metaphors.

Certain villages or districts in Champagne do seem to have a taste profile but winemaking creates taste variables too.  Many domaines do not make only ‘local brews’, but blend as well from quite widespread origins and these cuvées are often excellent and can show other aspects of ‘terroir’.  Champagne has always shown great savoir-faire and excellence by blending across vintages, districts and varieties.  This does not invalidate high quality.  A champagne can still be poor quality, poorly made, even if its grapes come from a limited place.  Mediocre winemaking obscures terroir.  Great wine making is as much a condition of expressing terroir as the terroir itself.

7  Domaine or single estate (old term ‘grower’) champagne should not be virtuously counterposed to the big branded champagne houses’ wines.

Most of the houses, at least within their range, can make fabulous wines.  They have great experience and expertise, possess great cellars and reserve wines and can source wines for many stunning blends and possess the stocks for good aging.  The jibe that houses merely make ‘house styles’ ignores the fact most domaine (‘grower’) champagnes also show the signature of the producer clearly and consistently as at least one aspect of their identity.  Predictable, easy-drinking and crowd-pleaser champagne is as much made by many ‘growers’ as it is by many houses.

Just to be clear, on balance, the average quality of the big houses’ champagnes is at present higher than the majority of so-called ‘grower’ champagne.  A champagne does not score brownie points just because it is ‘grower’.  Nor does a wine from a big house.  It is the taste profile of the final wine in both cases that is the arbiter of quality.  And ‘growers’ benefit enormously from the international prestige of the Champagne appellation; they flourish under its umbrella just as the houses bask in the interest, ‘buzz’ and diversity of domaine champagne.

8  Critics and wine journalists should stop recommending domaine or single estate champagne for its ‘good value’ pricing.

We are often advised to buy domaine champagne because it is cheaper than the big brands. But very good champagne deserves a good price whether made by a house or domaine.  The top domaine champagnes in fact have prices higher than many of the houses’ wines, and why not?  The reason so much mainstream ‘supermarket’ wine is mediocre is because the public have been educated by many wine critics to race to the bottom on price.   If critics do not oppose buying the promo ‘deal’ instead of buying good champagne then all wine, all champagne, will be mainstream and mediocre.  Sometimes a great wine can be found at a modest price.  But this is not the same as recommending plonk just because it is cheap.

9  Domaine or single estate champagne can be and is becoming ineffably ‘cool’.

This is because it dares to be different, at least amongst its greatest exponents. It needs to tell a story which highlights and connects the consumer with the people who make it, because it cannot yet compete with the huge brand resonance of the big brand champagne houses.  It can show a range of flavours – including ‘terroir’ – hooray! –  and stylistic moves that are original, unusual, exciting and astonishing.  This diversity challenges the dogmatism that champagne should taste one way, the samey mainstream champagne style.   Domaine champagne is as great a glory to Champagne as the big houses, and the best show classicism as well as innovation.  But waving the heritage flag of tradition down generations, rather than claiming outstanding quality, proven in taste, is a mistake for domaine champagne.

It is a good thing domaine champagne can sometimes scare the horses.  This is what makes it cool. It changes the imaginative boundaries of champagne winemaking, creates a healthy ‘culture clash’, call it a shake-up if you will, within Champagne.  Domaine champagne should strive to change and develop its wine to ever higher quality and take its customers with it.  There is a sense that the big houses sometimes work hard to get better at making the same thing.  Domaine champagne is not frightened to develop its flavours and styles if it means more finesse, greater precision and balance, complexity with longevity: better and more interesting champagne.

Domaine champagne is about the science, art and soul of its makers.  It should refuse to be tied down by staid imagery of history, aspirational lifestyles , and ‘bling’.  In London right now, the best restaurant wine list of single estate top quality domaine champagnes in the whole country, and by some way, is at ‘Bubbledogs’ which serves more or less only one item with them: hot dogs.

10  Quality selection rules.  In the UK right now, domaine or single estate champagne needs to reconnect with marketing top quality and not finding ‘growers’ to import at all costs at modest prices.

Too many, not all, importers of these wines seem to have selected their portfolio with less regard for quality, perhaps without enough wine-tasting experience or expertise being applied. Exclusivities are sought for quick direct import when more careful selection of quality is crucial.  Proper selection demands repeated long-term visiting of producers, discussion with them, study of their viticulture and winemaking over an extended period, maybe several years, and exhaustive tasting in Champagne .

A number of web-based marketeers for ‘grower’ champagne adopt the easy lowest common-denominator ‘farmer fizz and ‘artisan’ imagery, and some say they sell only ‘grower’ but lob in some houses or coop wines too. The marketing by growers’ representatives in Champagne treats coop clones as generically equal to proper domaines and little quality sifting goes into the export effort.  A useful promotional body in the proper sense of single estates is, although this is not just for indie champagne producers, but all France.

This quality problem does not of course apply to the 25 or so elite domaines already internationally established as the stars of single estate champagne.  But the real work of exploring and finding the next top single domaines has barely begun.  Probably, many of them have yet to be found. Which is exciting and very cool.

The established stars of domaine champagne:

I have included Jacquesson (NM) because they behave like a domaine in so many ways.  In my view, Jacquesson may well be the best quality producer currently, in all Champagne.

Paul Bara
Bérèche et Fils
Cedric Bouchard
Francis Boulard
Pierre Gimonnet
Jacques Lassaigne
Serge Mathieu
Pierre Moncuit
Pierre Péters
Jerome Prevost
Eric Rodez
Jacques Selosse
de Sousa
Vouette et Sorbée (Bertrand Gautherot)
*Picture is the Terroir & Talents domaine group poster: 2013 tasting in Epernay
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A link up was announced today, a Huffington post exclusive, between Dom Perignon and Prosecco. There will be a short 6 month second fermentation and ageing in tomb-shaped magnums at a secret location in Sicily before each bottle is blessed by the Pope in Rome, personally signed in Paris by Francois Hollande and packed in Epernay at a plant owned by Johnny Hallyday. It will be called Shamecco.

Dosage will be zero and disgorgement only ‘a la volly’ as Toni Glera said, the CEO of the joint venture. A biodynamic cuvée is planned, once parcels of land planted from the Les Crayeres lawns in Reims and a disused car park in the Sézanne have come on stream.

There are to be new steel-lined barriques for the ageing of the vins clairs, with kiln-dried maple wood from a small forest discovered next to the main runway at Charles de Gaulle airport. The barriques will be flown to cellars in the Cartizze village of the Veneto which have a constant temperature of 25C and a testing humidity of only 10%. A new cultured yeast has been selected from the bedrooms of 5000 teenagers pledged to be in loving relationships, who were secretly commissioned from lycées in Venice, Reims and Les Riceys. A rosé version is expected next year, blended by the addition of bull’s blood from Charolais cattle, buried for five years in unicorn horns at the bottom of the Laguna Veneta.

Shamecco is expected to sell for €7 a bottle on release. New Dom Perignon chef de cave Ricardo Geofferrari said the wine had massive density, matched only by its apparent weightlessness ‘It will be good with chocolate’ he said.

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If you read wine columns, a diminishing habit amongst wine drinkers I’m told, you may have noticed that wine writers almost never criticise a wine.

It’s been in the back of my mind for years but recently I read a lot of restaurant, film, concert and book reviews and it hit me between the eyes.

There’s a time-honoured tradition amongst UK critics in general, of telling the truth or at least speaking your mind.  It’s become part of the entertainment as well as the cultural information on what to see, read or eat. You don’t have to believe every visceral and damning comment from Giles Coren on food or from Fay Maschler or AA Gill.  Or even Derek Malcolm and Mark Kermode on film.  I’m reminded AA Gill does polemic and brimstone about print as well as shrimp.  Only recently he trashed Morrissey’s autobiography as: ‘A sea of Stygian self-justification and stilted self-conscious prose..’ You can file this stuff away and go and try for yourself.  But it is hugely entertaining and can provoke discussion about just what is quality, what are the criteria for judging food out, a good read or a film?  Canons are a good thing – they keep us all alive to just what is entailed in deciding what is good and what is bad.  But most wine writers avoid it like the plague.

I know it’s not because wine writers are just so nice to everything and everybody.  In private, believe you me, they pan a poor wine like the best of us.  And not just wine. Only yesterday, a very good UK wine writer, a brilliant specialist on the scientific aspects of wine and pioneer blogger about wine (OK it is Jamie Goode) said ‘BA sucks’ on Twitter when he had to pay through the nose to change a flight.   But wine writers don’t dish the dirt on wine or do it rarely, in print.  I can only think it is because they are in awe of wine distributors and the PRs they rely on to keep sending them the samples and on the jollies to wine regions.

Many critics use a scoring system for wines and this works to soften their blows. The 100 point scale weirdly only begins at 50.  But aficionados know that less than 90 on this scale is merely OK, and less than 80 rubbish.  But 70+ is a first for a university degree, so forgive the poor consumer for not realising an 84 for a wine from a critic is a definite thumbs down. The scale allows critics to give what seem quite high marks and avoid having to write the weasel words or even, say exactly what they think.  As revered Hugh Johnson said recently about the 100-point scale:  “…the whole thing was idiotic from the start – it’s time we shelved it.”

You could argue that of the 1000s of wines out there, many are made by small families doing their honest best and the last thing we want to do is smash their chances of selling their wine for a small income or even break even.  Especially when we know how rapacious the supermarkets can be when bargaining with suppliers over price.  But I don’t see many people buying things on such a charitable basis.  Least of all wine critics.  They generally tote mass brands to drive, make calls, go jogging and be online.  And they comb reviews and blogs like the rest of us to find the weaknesses or poor experiences with products.  And you can argue that a small family wine producer making so-so wines, will never get better unless criticism is made.  If you don’t criticise wines when they deserve it but simply stay silent, the wines will probably stay bad.

Perhaps, most wine critics would agree, 90% of all the wine on sale out there is plonk. I do not mean 90% of all the different wines, but 90% of the volume.  A limited number of branded wines make up the ocean of what is sold (and they sell 80% of all the bottles bought in the UK) by supermarkets.  Most of them sell for or under around the average £5.20 spent on a bottle of wine in the UK.  And in a bottle of wine for that much, once you have paid transport, duty, the profit margin and tax, the wine in the bottle is 83p. And it is plonk.  But hardly anyone says so.  Why?  And one can go further – there are plenty of mediocre bottles, that should know better given the competition from 1000s of wonderful good quality wines, which sell for much more than £5.20 but give the drinker a shabby deal.

Maybe wine columns are on the wane because they are so bland. The odd reservation here and there but in the end they are all about recommendations and price.  The best you get often is slight condescension – phrases such as : ‘Not thrilling..’ or ‘perfectly serviceable…’. The message is, it’all good for its price, so just buy on price.  But this mistakes consumer journalism’s real mission.  Wine so happens to be a product where there is a big price and quality gap.  And even a big gap between prices for the same quality.  All wine critics agree on that.  Just go on Wine-Searcher to see the yawning chasm or tiny hole the same wine can make in your wallet.  That’s one of the reasons the punter is anxious about buying wine.

It might be a start if wine critics said more often: Here’s a gem, buy it.  And it’s much better than that one over there that isn’t good enough, for a similar price.

Why don’t they ever mention ‘that one over there’?

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I for one do not sneer at the champagne brands’ amusing marketing efforts; those little gestures of promotion dreamt up hot-desking by interns in agencies and sent upstairs for big cheeses’ approval. I often smile too at the way Nike-wearing, Apple-toting, BMW-driving and Emirates-flying puritans then decry the branding of big champagne. I just wish small wine producers were more creative about the ways they try to get our attention, not just for champagne.

I’m not saying that great brand must be made in gargantuan volumes. On the whole, the bigger the production of a wine brand, the lower its quality tends to be. But niche and small brand marketing remain a mystery to most champagne producers and they should not.

Domaine (grower) champagne (and I am a big fan when it is good) needs to up its promotion game and stop wallowing in samey rhetoric about how many generations its family have been working the soil, how ‘artisan’ and ‘peasant farmer’ they are. Terry Theise’s title of ‘farmer fizz’ to dub ‘grower’ single estate champagne is misplaced, backward and romantic. It should be ‘good fizz’, judged on quality, not on the toiling credentials of the guys who make it.

Phew, sorry about the huffing and puffing. But this puffed wheat little branding gesture from Moet this week did amuse me. A glass of Brut Imperial in a bar comes with a mini-box of truffle-flavoured popcorn. A great match, a giggle, and memorable.

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I think today I may have tasted my best wine of 2014.  Not bad for January 13th, but by the law of averages this augers well; surely something will be even better to come over the next 353 days. But the bar is now set high.

Weingut Schäfer-Fröhlich is in the Nahe, a rising star since 1995 when Tim Fröhlich’s potential football career ended with injury.  It has been wine’s gain and the estate is now one of the best in Germany and definitely in the Nahe elite. Quite amazing; to have arrived in the company of Dönnhof in so short a time.

The Schäfer-Fröhlich Felseneck Riesling Eiswein 2010, just 6% abv if you happen to be cutting down in the New Year, and coming only in half bottles, so even more abstemious, has density but a filigree texture from wonderfully natural acidity that holds the wine through its great length.  There’s a saline minerality cosseted in bitter honey.  It’s very young, hard not to drink now but surely promises wonders in maturity too. Very good indeed. I’m afraid I could only dream of the foie-gras it made me crave, surely a destiny the angels have marked down for it if you are lucky.  Perhaps another time.

The joy does not come without a ticket – probably well in excess of £100 per half bottle.  UK stockist: The Winebarn, Dummer, Hants RG25 2AE This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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Apparently in the ‘squeezed middle’, Boden wearing Volkswagen Passat people are not afraid to do ‘thrift’ now, even though they would never call it poverty.  But surely, they would never be seen dead (or in pink track suits and new trainers) in Lidl. Think again, or choke on your next Waitrose bill.  The day may be coming when the mortgageazzi of England worry how far it is to a Lidl like they do about good schools. Especially as it’s eco-cool to take your own bag shopping now.  You won’t be spotted by neighbours when you drag the Lidl swag from the car.  And what a relief Lidl don’t do home delivery.

Cleverly Lidl have made a big push to attract the belt-tightening ABC1s and now crow of a great Christmas with 25% of their customers reading books and going on short city breaks sur le continont.  That is when they are not the ‘middle class…being the…Lidl class’, as Claire Bowman put it, writing in the Times.

And shock horror, this is not being achieved by downmarket ploys of free coffee and newspapers but by reversing the age-old supermarket tactic of doing price offers on posh goods like wine so as to suck in footfall – I do love my footfall being sucked – who get the BOGOF on Chablis and fill their trolleys with a big shop on top. It works, but far too simple for Lidl.  They seem to have done it with upmarket goods that nevertheless seem bargains. ‘Which?’ thought their mince pies better than Fortnum & Mason’s for Christmas. Goodness you think, Lidl will be selling foie gras next.  And then there’s those lobsters for £4.99.  OK, small, frozen, cooked, not that great, but they make a good mousse starter. It’s the lobster word, stupid.

All of this is beautifully illustrated with Lid’s wine innovation.  They have pulled in a panel of Masters of Wine to rate their new Wine Cellar range.  Even after Christmas, when I went to my nearest Lidl – OK, Finsbury Park is not too far from Crouch End, I mean Highgate borders – most of the latest additions to this range were in stock.  I served them blind to my wine geek (will discuss wine as much as clothes) and wine loving, (not too fussed if it tastes nice) friends.  They were impressed.

Next day my Harley Street dentist neighbour texted me to say how great it was to taste good wine that does not cost the earth.  She would say that – the average price of the eight wines was £10.60 a bottle, double the average paid for wine in the UK. But she was right.  The wines do taste good; everyone thought so.   Here are our favourites, with Italy doing well:

Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 14% 2008 £19.99 14%abv Medici Riccardi. Our most liked, though we considered it could be Burgundy before we saw the label.  It is 100% Sangiovese Grosso in fact with fruit and yet great cut from its fresh but talcum smooth tannin.  Worth the money.

Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2012 DOCG 2012 £6.99 13%abv Podere Macinatico The 2011 won a bronze medal in the International Wine Challenge.  This lovely Italian white had a quiet, airy intensity and a lingering almond finish.  Good.

Barbera d’Asti Superiore 2010 DOCG  2010 £9.99, 13.5%abv, Cascina Posine A lovely warm, smouldery note and gentle aromas of violets.  Neat, fresh structure and cut; well done.  Often one of Italy’s better mid-market red sources.

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1 Don’t Be Lazy About Wine Don’t be impressed by ‘experts’ who say they have a mission to demystify wine. If you want more out of wine than a pick-me-up after work, happy juice for the middle classes, then make some effort.  Music, art, science, poetry, astronomy, photography and angling are complex pursuits; wine is too.

Don’t fall for the dumb-downers who say knowing about wine and caring about quality makes you a snob. How much time and effort does an avid reader, amateur musician, car freak or angler put into what turns them on?  Be ready to devote at least as much time to the subject of wine as they do to their bag.  Of course there are endless levels of commitment in between.  But don’t fall for the idea that pursuits with effort are no fun.

2  Drink less, drink better. Stop buying plonk (ie most wine under £8.00 before a discount) and cut your consumption in two if not more.   If you don’t want to spend more than £30 a week on wine at home, buy one or two bottles for £30 / £15 each.  Your liver will benefit and you give yourself a chance to learn and drink something good at least 50 times a year.

3  Join the Wine Society. This only applies to UK readers.  If you do not already belong you are missing out on the best wine seller in the UK.

4  Wine Writer’s Opinions. Don’t let wine sites or articles talk down to you, as though you need a guru to tell you what to buy or what’s in, what’s out. Take control and learn to judge quality so you can make up your own mind.  The best wine writers don’t shout the odds or tell you what to drink, they lay out their opinions and ask you to consider them. And the best have dumped the silly 100 point scale that falsely starts at 50.

5  Read More If you are a wine freak already, you have never been better served for wine books and digital downloads.  Wine Grapes (Robinson, Harding, Vouillamoz), Penguin, Allen Lane, for starters – e-book version too.  The World Atlas of Wine 7th Edition (Johnson, Robinson), Mitchell Beazley, also e-book, is a new wine nut survival tool – love those maps!! Two recent books on Bordeaux are really tasty:  Bordeaux Legends – The 1855 First Growth Wines (Jane Anson) and Neal Martin’s self-published Pomerol (  Peter Liem and Jesus Barquin’s Sherry, Manzanilla and Montilla is terrific (  Just out The Christie’s World Encyclopaedia of Champagne Sparkling Wine (Tom Stevenson, Essi Avellan) is required reading for fizz freaks too.

Similarly, You cannot be a serious joyful wine hobbyist unless you go through the pay wall of at least one expert wine site online.   Start with a sub to, easily the best wine site for those who love wine and want to learn more.

Most wine blogs, (and there are too many) could be better written, even when the author clearly knows a lot.  Many wine columns are readable because foremost, the writer is a professional journalist.  By all means read blogs, but sift to find the best and move on if they falter or peter out or start shouting at you.

6 The Prosecco Procession. By all means drink Prosecco if you are desperate and broke, but accept it is mostly sweet fizzy pop with ethanol.  It may have gained some cachet in a recession but this does not stop it being poor quality wine on the whole. If you love it anyway, fine!

7  Bordeaux Stop making the excuse that Bordeaux is a busted flush as Asian plutocrats price it out of your league.  That is no reason to turn your back on a region still making the most complex long-lived red wine.  Or think you don’t need to learn about Bordeaux wine any more.  About 30 chateaux may now be well out of the league of the average wine punter.  That still leaves 100s of estates making good to great wine at more reasonable prices.  The same, to a lesser degree, goes for Burgundy, the Rhone and Champagne.

8 Australia For slightly different reasons, if you have veered away from Australia because of its BBQ and ‘sunshine in a bottle’ image, or even its appalling oily cheaply-oaked Chardonnays of the past, then come back.  Australian wine quality has now pulled significantly ahead of the rest of the New World, except for California and the US west coast.

9  Eating Out. Have the courage to tell some restaurants their wine mark ups are rapacious, including the mark-ups in trendy ‘natural’ wine bars.  Wines by the glass are great, but usually marked up far more than the whole bottle.  Do cook more for friends at home and avoid paying to have your wallet filched so often by wine lists when you eat out.

10 Natural Wine Natural wine is a big misnomer. Wine is not a natural product, ever.  It does not make itself.  Growing grapes and making wine is a major human intervention in nature.  Wine making must make sure things reproduce well and save many things from decay using techniques which are far from natural.  Many so-called natural wines in fact contain appreciable levels of SO2; I’m glad they do.  Nevertheless, many so-called ‘natural’ wines can be delicious, although rarely profound and fine.  Remember what Bobby Dylan said: I am against nature. I don’t dig nature at all. I think nature is very unnatural. I think the truly natural things are dreams, which nature can’t touch with decay.

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The latest edition of ‘La Revue du Vin de France’, has published its ranking of what it calls the ’50 best champagne houses’ – although the website (click the link) will only show you the top 10.  You’ll need to buy the magazine itself to see the whole list.  Oh hell, I’ll publish the top 20 below anyway and recant if I get a shirty letter about copyright from them.

The weird thing about it all however, is that it has deliberately excluded any ranking within it of domaine or single estate champagne (often called ‘grower’ champagne).

This is quite deliberate, not some inexplicable oversight or traditional bias by the champagne establishment against domaine champagne.  The ‘RVF’ is quite clued up on single estate champagne developments, no question.

So why the apparent silliness? After all, they have included seven coops or coop groupings in the list – in rank order Mailly Grand Cru (21st), Palmer & Co (27), Veuve A Devaux (32), Pannier (36), Nicolas Feuillatte (38), Jacquart (45) and Beaumont des Crayères (47). These coops can all make good wine.  But no single domaine champagnes, not one.

Their spurious, if that’s not too unkind a word, rationale, is that all producers had to make 300k bottles or more of champagne a year.  Sorry, that doesn’t wash.  By the same token, in any ranking of international Bordeaux blends, the top five Médoc (including Haut-Brion) first growths would be excluded.  Lafite is the only one whose grand vin gets anywhere near 300k bottles sometimes.

So what is going on here?  This is not the place to quibble about the actual ranking of those they do include.  I’m in favour of rankings.  It stimulates debate about excellence in any field of creative human activity.  The discussion about canons, the classic and the newcomers and their relative position is at least, a vital part of wine.

But to exclude domaine champagne  here, no doubt the subject of a future splash in ‘RVF’, is to fall into the big trap in the Champagne world, in discussion amongst producers, critics and some consumers.  And that is to see Champagne and champagne as a binary world – the growers versus the houses and big coops.  The false dichotomy is particularly prevalent in the USA and perhaps Japan, where ‘small is good’, hipster and ‘terroir’ accolades are heaped generically on ‘grower’ champagne (what Terry Theise in the US calls ‘farmer fizz’) and the big houses’ wines are often dubbed big volume, heavily marketed industrial swill – but if you happen to be pouring me a glass of it, thanks very much.

This false fork in the road ends up a double blind alley.  Champagne should stand or fall by the quality of what it tastes like, not who made it and how.  The small and big houses are continually a source of great champagne, but not all of it, and we can discuss the rank.  But some of them make champagne often inferior to the best growers too.

Equally, those that talk about growers’ champagne being ‘terroir wine’ in any generic sense are making a fatal error.  I’m sure, I’m convinced, that quite a number of great champagne small domaines are as yet undiscovered.  But at present, the majority of so-called ‘grower’ champagnes are coop imposters, selling the same wines in their villages as their neighbours but with different labels – the so-called RCs or ‘récoltants-coopérateurs’.  The proper domaines or single estates (RMs) may number 1,956 producers (last count in 2013), but only the top few, say 200 tops, are making really interesting champagne with the quality to compete on the international market.

The elite of these single estates can pass muster against many of the producers in the ‘RVF’ ranking.  But for some reason, they are not given the chance.  Why?  Could it be that the RVF are preferring to keep their welcome warm at the really big négociant houses rather than risk putting noses out of joint by listing the odd grower ahead of certain houses?

Just to be cheeky, here’s the top 20 ranking from the RVF.  But in bold, and not based on my definitive ranking view, but a putative, provocative suggestion, I’ve spiced things up and thrown the odd domaine into the pot too – in fact 18 of them!

Have mercy on my soul.

Louis Roederer
Pol Roger
Dom Perignon
Salon (they made an exception to the 300k volume rule here – its about 60k bottles annual)
Charles Heidsieck
A.R. Lenoble
Veuve Clicquot
Bérèche & Fils
Éric Rodez
Pierre Péters
André Jacquart
Henri Giraud
Pierre Paillard
De Souza & Fils
Joseph Perrier
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I’ve heard a bellyful recently about ‘real’ champagne and how evil are the big ‘brands’. Usually written by people who move effortlessly in their own shiny world of Apple, Nike and Virgin.

And I’m wondering if restaurants and hotels in the UK need to do a serious rethink about the way they sell champagne. Are they too complacent, thinking it will sell itself?

Too many do not think through how to present champagne as both chic and complex. They neglect champagne and relegate it to the shaky ground of ‘celebration’. And too many commentators adopt a lazy rhetoric, missing the brilliant and complex wines of many houses and suggesting crassly that all domaine champagne (grower) exudes artisan ‘terroir’ or that it is just a ‘good value’ price choice.

Of course there are brilliant single estate/ domaine/ grower wines but many are mediocre. Just as many wines from houses can be mediocre while many are top quality. But the daft polarisation of Champagne with capitalist ogres spending marketing budgets on one side and hipster, heroic horny-handed sons and daughters of toil on the other, is mindless. Champagne should be judged by the quality of its taste, not by who makes it or the size of the winery. I love many domaine champagnes and many from houses. But it is silly to draw the line between them. The line to follow is one of quality, of complexity and elegance, delicacy, fragrance and length.

Selling champagne should not be about making people want all of it and more of it.  But about wanting more of some of it because it is so good.

And that is what will make it chic in the end.

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