Champagne tour de force

It might just be the most useful book ever written on France’s prestige sparkling wine, Champagne.

Tyson Stelzer’s ‘The Champagne Guide 2014-2015” (Hardie Grant hardback; $39.95) doesn’t dwell too much on the history or romance – that’s well covered in many books, from Patrick Forbes to Francois Bonal to Richard Juhlin and others. And there have been guides before, notably by Tom Stevenson. But Stelzer’s book broaches a number of subjects that others found too touchy to handle, such as grape yields (too high, and rising), the vineyard classification (‘antiquated’), parallel importing, and most contentiously, presentation problems such as cork taint, oxidation, light strike, staleness and generally irritating variability. Stelzer lets the reader into all the secrets of Champagne; the thorny issues that producers would prefer consumers weren’t aware of.

As well, his profiles of Champagne houses go into greater detail than most authors, and his tasting notes are precise, and include a rating out of 100. It has always been a sore point that Champagne reviewers lacked incisiveness, just as Champagne houses almost seem deliberately vague about their house style and production details such as dosage and length of time on lees. But Stelzer exposes everything.

To have access to so much information about Champagne is just so refreshing – as refreshing as the product itself. The world needed this book.

To rewind a little, Stelzer is a Brisbane-based wine writer whose first career was as a school-teacher. Perhaps this helps explain his communication skills. At just 37, he has cemented his position in the wine community and quickly become a world authority on Champagne. The first edition of this guide, published in 2011, was very good, the second in 2012-13 improved on it, and this, the third, is simply outstanding. Visually, it’s been improved out of sight (by his new publisher Hardie Grant), with superb colour photography (also by Stelzer), elegant design, and high-quality glossy paper. This edition is $10 cheaper than the previous one, which is unusual to say the least. Especially as it has 70 per cent more content.

So, how has the world received this book – an opinionated, fearless, ground-breaking book from a remarkably young man from the opposite side of the world to France? In a word, enthusiastically.

Stelzer was anointed International Champagne Writer of the Year 2011 (albeit unfortunately bestowed by a Champagne house, Louis Roederer) and, closer to home, the Wine Communicator of the Year 2013, by Wine Communicators of Australia. His Champagne guides have won praise from overseas and local observers including Jancis Robinson and Decanter magazine.

As the author of technical books on screwcaps, and an avowed cork critic, Stelzer’s unforgiving views on wine-bottle closures have probably earned him some opponents in Champagne, where cork is still king despite causing more problems than anywhere else in the wine world.

In his tastings for this book, he reports finding cork taint in one in every 15 bottles sealed with conventional cork, and a further one in 30 were oxidised, meaning one in 10 bottles he tasted went straight down the sink. And Champagne is an expensive wine. “This year’s findings are downright scandalous,” he writes in the chapter ‘Fizzers’. He concludes that the technical cork Diam, quite widely used nowadays, is a big improvement, but the best closure would be a crown-seal, but the current Champagne laws don’t permit it. The industry body could change the rules, but lacks the will. “Champagne’s reluctance to change its rules is based on perceived consumer reaction,” he says. It’s aesthetic, not technical.

Part of Stelzer’s take-no-prisoners approach to cork faults is that in each tasting note, he lists any faulty bottles that he’s tasted and rejected. For Dom Perignon, he reports an ‘alarming’ level of cork taint in recent years. Always, he says, take the bottle back to where you bought it and have it replaced, if you find it’s ‘corked’, oxidized or otherwise faulty.

A few statistics. In the new edition, 95 Champagne houses are profiled and more than 500 wines reviewed. Despite the encyclopedic feel of the tome (it has 360 pages), Stelzer says there wasn’t enough room for every cuvee and every house he wanted to include, hence four houses (Besserat de Bellefon, Charles Joubert, Duperrey and Bruno Paillard) and 40 cuvées will appear only on the web-site, where there’s also a chapter on Champagne restaurants with 17 recommendations.

The bulk of the book is devoted to profiles of producers, each with a rating out of 10 and each with a number of tasting notes. The notes vary according to the importance of the producer: the major ones get a detailed essay, the minor just a few sentences. Pierre Gimonnet, a great-value house imported with great success by Vintage Cellars, gets a three-page intro and four pages of reviews. Scoring a possible 10/10 are four houses: Billecart-Salmon, Bollinger, Krug and Salon, while seven more get 9/10. They are Andre Clouet, De Sousa, Dom Perignon, Egly-Ouriet, Jacquesson, Pierre Peters and Pol Roger.

There are 10 essays in the front of the book, which tackle, in addition to what I’ve already mentioned, such topics as global warming, defining and understanding minerality, the role of dosage and the zero-dosage trend, and the contentious subject of the planned expansion of the Champagne vineyard area. There are also chapters on how Champagne is made, and how to serve it. These thoughtful, probing essays are worth buying the book for by themselves, never mind that they form a small part of the total. Stelzer brings a tremendous depth of understanding to it all.

The previous two editions were remarkable enough, each building on the other, but this one is extraordinary: a tour de force. I have no hesitation saying it is the best guide ever published on Champagne. And it’s by a 37-year-old Aussie from Brissie… Bravo.

Publication date: November 1. Also available as an e-book for $19.95.

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 15 October 2013.

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