Canada-EU CETA Deal Could Ease Drinks’ Costs in the Great White North (from Drinks Business, Feb. 15, 2017)

Go-ahead for EU-Canada CETA trade deal



Go-ahead for EU-Canada CETA trade deal

15th February, 2017 by Arabella Mileham

The EU has voted to ratify a controversial trade deal with Canada which will boost the exports of drinks between the two trade blocks, and remove Canadian regional monopolies on wine retailing.

The Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), which opened negotiations in 2009 and was signed in October, is one of the most comprehensive deals the EU has undertaken. It will eliminate 98% of tariffs on goods traded between Canada and the EU – including wines, spirits and beers. The vote this morning paves the way for it to come into effect in months once it has been agreed by each member state’s parliaments.

The deal should make it easier for smaller EU drinks producers to gain entry into the market as well as making them more competitive in Canada. The agreement will also smooth the route to market for EU drinks exporters, as the deal will end Canada’s regional monopolies on wine retailing that are applied in every region apart from Alberta, however as yet there is little more information as to how this will operate.

Earlier this week the SWA called on MEPs to back the controversial deal, arguing that it would be good for the entire European distilling industry by boosting sales to Canada.

It said the deal would bring a range of benefits to whisky in particular including removing barriers to entry, and removing the potential for Canadian regional liquor board to introduce unfair mark-ups on imported products such as Scotch.

Sales of Scotch whisky to Canada are worth around £77 million a year, the SWA noted, with Canada the industry’s thirteen largest market by value.

Scotch Whisky GI is already protected in Canada and benefits from a zero tariff, but CETA will boost Scotch whisky bottled in Canada. The deal will mean Scotch whisky imported as bulk to be bottled in Canada will benefit from Scotch’s geographic indicator status, by removing a Canadian rule that requires a small proportion (around 1% minimum) of locally-produced spirits must be added to bulk spirit imports if they are bottled by anyone other than the Candian liquor board – meaning that the GI status no longer applies.

The SWA welcomed the news. SWA Global Affairs Director Sarah Dickson said the deal was “good for trade and good for Scotch Whisky”.

“Following the overwhelming endorsement of MEPs, industries in the UK and across Europe will be able to generate growth and jobs through increased exports with one of world’s top markets,” she said. “The Scotch Whisky industry can look forward to building on its trade relationship with Canada, which is already our thirteenth largest export market by value worth around £80million a year. This will, in turn, generate a further boost to UK exports, cementing the industry’s position as the largest net contributor to the UK’s balance of trade in goods.”

However there was stiff opposition for CETA both within the EU parliament, and from protesters outside the building, who delayed the start of this morning’s debate.

The Wine & Spirit Trade Association in the UK also commented, saying it was delighted that MEPs have voted for the “progressive” trade agreement.

“The lifting of all import tariffs on wines and spirits will allow UK products to compete fairly with an important trading partner in an increasingly globalised market,” WSTA chief executive Miles Beale said.

“Spirits such as gin and vodka will now be able to enjoy the same zero-tariff rates as whisky. CETA will allow British gin, which already accounts for 1 in every 3 bottles of UK spirit exports to Canada, to expand its reach overseas.”

“Additionally English wine can look to the Canadian market with an increased incentive as a destination in their bid to grow exports of their world-renowned sparkling and still wines.”

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“Here and Now” Interview on Post-Trump Stress Disorder

Gill Deacon interviewed me today (January 31) on CBC Radio One’s afternoon drive show “Here and Now” about the tsunami of dire news flooding us out of our everyday lives, and how to deal with it.  This link will take you to it. 

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Fresh Air Interview: Managing Political Anxiety

Here’s Ralph Ben Mergui’s January 29 interview with me on the CBC Radio One programme “Fresh Air.”




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Champagne RODEZ:  Joy in your Glass


The Rodez family has been growing grapes in the village of Ambonnay since 1757.  Today, Champagne Rodez cultivates 12 hectares of vineyards and produces a modest 45,000 bottles of Champagne a year, 6% of which is sold in France.  The rest is exported to 32 countries.

The operation is currently in the hands of Eric Rodez.  More than just an impressively knowledgeable and experienced viticulturist and winemaker, he’s a vinous visionary and poet, a zealot with a range of talents to back up his passions.  His impressive photographs literally reflect his engaging and beautiful view of the world.  His cosmic finger prints are all over his wines.

Eric Rodez left a “university background” and entered the family business in 1984.  There was much to do in the vineyards and at the winery but he was encouraged by the observation that the local weather was growing noticeably warmer.  He concluded that “it would lead to riper fruit, and it would become easier to produce (single vineyard) wines than it was for my grandparents.”  In his pursuit of improvement he “learned that recipes in the vineyard and chai are useless.”  Between ’84 and ’88 he spent three years in Burgundy.  “I met with enologists, not growers.  In ’85 I was told ‘work the soil.’”

He then did a fourteen month stint as winemaker at Krug, the Vatican of Champagne.

In 1989 Eric “changed things on the domain.  I had to sell the idea to my family.  I introduced organic techniques.  In 1995 we were certified and later became biodynamic (an ultra-orthodox school of organic viticulture and vinification created by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s.)  It completely changed my view of life.  I’m an organic biodynamic crusader.”  His summary of the philosophy is that “yesterday’s decision affects today, which affects tomorrow.”

Beyond the family domain, Eric is active in a variety of organisations dedicated to maintaining wine quality, sustainability and other aspects of production in the Champagne region.  That activity includes serving as the mayor of Ambonnay.

Rodez’s professional raison d’être is to provide “pleasure for the consumer and put joy in your glass.  I make wine with my heart.”  The thing is, Eric really means it, and he delivers the goods as promised.  A sworn enemy of “industrialised grapes and the standardisation of champagne,” he warns that “other sparkling wines have evolved.  Champagne has to be different.”

Rodez champagnes are blended from numerous vineyards and vintages, but beyond richness and full fruit with wings of refreshing acidity there is no homogeneity here.  His base wines are complex and rich, bearing no resemblance to the thin acidic specimens I’ve tasted elsewhere.  They are actually very like the still white Burgundies to which Eric compares them.

The champagnes produced by Rodez are divided into three lines: champagnes d’auteur or author champagnes, champagnes de lieux-dits or parcel champagnes, and produits de terroir or products of terroir.  Prices here are hard to determine, but bottles sold at the winery ranged in price ranging from 35 Euros through 135 Euros.


Champagnes d’auteur

Rodez Cuvée des Crayères (score 90) is a blend of 60% pinot noir and 40% chardonnay from nine sites and seven vintages (’07 through ’11.).  It’s harmonious, citric and sweetly autolytic, rich but not heavy with a long fresh lemon finish.

Rodez Blanc de Blancs (score 90+) is all chardonnay, sourced from nine vineyards over the ’06 to ‘11 vintages.  A mineral and lemon nose leads into a brisk citric mineral palate with a fresh, rich long finish.

Rodez Blanc de Noirs (score 91) is 100% pinot noir from the ’11, ’10, ’09, ‘08, ’06 and ’05 vintages grown on eleven sites.  It’s finesseful with integrated autolytic, mineral and white peach aromas and flavours with power married to delicacy through a lacy finish.

Rodez Cuvée des Grands Vintages (score 92) caused a sensation among the CWW’s international members’ tasting at Rodez in October 2016.  It’s a blend of 70%pinot noir and 30% chardonnay from ten vineyards—but wait, there’s more!  It’s made exclusively from the “têtes de cuvée” from the domain’s recent best vintages, ’07, ’06, ’05, ’04, ’02 and ’00.  Drinking it is like listening to the Rolling Stones playing together with so much relaxed harmony on “Blue and Lonesome.”  The wine is complex with sweet autolytic, mineral, white peach and tropical fruit elements from your first sniff through a crisp but creamy mouthful and a long finish.


Champagnes de lieux-dits

Rodez Les Beurys 2010 Pinot Noir (score 90+) is a single-vineyard single-vintage 100% pinot noir wine.  It’s spirited, delicate and finesseful with fresh lemon fruit and delicate mineral autolytic character.  It’s crisp and linear through a long fresh tasty finish.

Rodez Les Genettes 2010 Pinot Noir (score 90+) is another single vineyard single vintage pinot noir wine.  It’s round, sweetly autolytic, brisk and full through a long complex finish.


Produits de terroir 

Rodez Empreinte de Terroir: Chardonnay 2004 (score 91) is a 100% chardonnay champagne from grapes grown on four plots in 2004.  It’s a party for the senses with autolytic lemon, white peach and mineral notes.  It’s a crisp lemony autolytic mineral nuanced mouthful with a long fresh rich lemon finish.

Rodez Empreinte de Terroir: Pinot Noir 2004 (score 91+) is 100% pinot noir from four vineyards.  It has the tell-tale golden hue of a serious blanc de noirs and a more complex presentation than its chardonnay counterpart.  Big sweet autolytic notes dance with white peach fruit through a crisp autolysis and fruit palate.  It’s big and complex with no trace of heaviness.



When my wife (a seasoned taster) sipped this Rodez Cuvee des Grand Vingages she went wide-eyed and cooed “this is exciting to drink.”


A visit with Eric Rodez at Champagne Rodez was a high-light for international members of a trip sponsored by the Comite Champagne.










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Sherry, Andalucia and More

Brown Barry and his Officer's Cross of the Order of Civil Merit

Barry Brown was awarded Spain’s Cross of the Order of Civil Merit for his work promoting Spanish wines.


Toronto-based Barry Brown is likely North America’s foremost authority on the wines of Spain.  He has visited the country’s wine regions dozens of times and has founded long-lasting relationships with producers old and new on his knowledge, charm and wit.  I once walked with him down a large thoroughfare in Jerez de la Frontera while locals shouted “Eh, Barry” from both sides of the street.  He’s more at home there than in his home town of Kitchener Ontario.

Barry has just announced the details of his 2017 trips to Seville and Jerez.  Like his previous tours, this one will feature exclusive visits, tastings and meals with producers, and artistic and cultural events. The accommodations are painstakingly selected and arranged.  I’ve pasted his “pitch” letter below.  If you’ve got the time and the tastes,  contact Barry for more information.  He’s got a few places left.



Wine, Cuisine, Art, and Architecture 

As I had shared so many months ago—in light of the overwhelming responses to our tours,  in 2017 I am taking four groups to Andalusia in southern Spain—and finally—I have the dates! The tours will commence in Sevilla for three glorious nights in the Hotel Alfonso XIII (Grand Deluxe rooms!), after which we travel to Jerez de la Frontera for eight nights in the         always so charming and welcoming, Hotel Sherry Park.

Group I – May 17 arrive Sevilla – May 28 depart Jerez de la Frontera

Group II – May 30 arrive Sevilla – June 10 depart Jerez de la Frontera

Group III – August 29 arrive Sevilla – September 9 depart Jerez de la Frontera

Group IV – September 10 arrive Sevilla–September 21 depart Jerez de la Frontera.

Andalusia – the vast south of Spain is bordered by the Mediterranean on the south, Extremadura and Castilla-La Mancha on the north, the Atlantic on the west, and the Mediterranean the east. Here you can experience the historic and monumental cities of Granada, Cordoba and–Sevilla.

While the lands north of Andalusia create excellent reds, whites , rosados, and cava—here, in the south-west corner of Andalusia, an hour south of Sevilla – in the Sherry Triangle comprised of the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria, and Sanlucar de Barrameda,  is crafted the world’s most undiscovered elixir—“Sherry”—an incomparable white wine.

As I have shared in the past—I of course enjoy the various styles of red wine—and as well, I very much appreciate the range of white wines, as I value dry, crisp rosados. But Sherry, the waiting to be discovered jewel – I treasure!

Our adventure will commence in magnificent Sevilla. This corner of Spain was inhabited by a strong Iberian culture by the Iron Age in 800 BC. Phoenicians, Greeks, and Carthaginians followed—and in 206 BC the Romans arrived on the peninsula, ruling for 700 years, until replaced by the Visigoths from the north. The Moors from North Africa then invaded dominating much of Spain for almost 700 years—leaving a legacy of astonishing science, agriculture, architecture, and cuisine.

In 1492 with the fall of Granada to Isabella and Fernando—the reunification of Spain under the Catholic monarchs was complete—with Spain entering an era of imperial expansion and prosperity, which included the discovery of the New World. With ships sailing from and returning to Sevilla—the city became one of the most affluent in Europe. Building upon the foundation created by the Moors, outstanding palaces, churches, and public buildings were built. Artistic life flourished with new vigour.

There is the serene Parque Maria Luisa which originally formed the grounds of the Baroque Palacio de San Telmo dating from 1682. Many of the exquisite buildings now in this park were erected for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929—one of which is the magnificent five-star Hotel Alfonso XIII our opulent, if not breath-taking home for three nights. The architecture is Neo-Moorish with an abundance of beautiful “azulejo” tile work—glazed ceramic tiles, first introduced by the Moors, esteemed in the south of Spain, with wrought iron and ornate brickwork. The Alfonso XIII is a magnificent work of art in itself.

We will experience Sevilla’s rich history, art, and architecture on our guided walking tours, including the spectacular Cathedral of Sevilla and the Real Alcazar—the royal residences. Velasquez was born in Sevilla—his art hangs in the 16th century Ayuntamiento (City Hall), while Zubaran, Murillo and Valdes Leal adorn many buildings—which we will also see.

While our guided walking tours will focus upon art and architecture in Sevilla—cuisine also occupies an equal and significant place within our adventure. As well as our banquet in the grand dining room of the Alfonso XIII, we will taste cultural culinary specialties during tapas sojourns and dinners redolent with local flavours.

And did I mention that Sevilla (and Jerez) is where you find the soul of flamenco —guitar, dance, and singing. We will experience a flamenco performance that will be both artistic and intense—a memorable evening is promised!

Following three glorious days and nights in Sevilla—we will depart for Jerez de la Frontera—and the jewel of the vinous world—Sherry, where we will experience the inner sanctum of this special part of the world of wine.  Jerez de la Frontera is the capital of the Sherry region.  While a modern town, a turn down this lane and a quick left there…and you are whisked to centuries long gone.

Sherry is an elixir that few understand and most presume is simply a sweet drink that Auntie enjoyed in the afternoon … hardly!!  All Sherry is vinified bone dry from Manzanilla and Fino, to Amontillado, to Palo Cortado, to Oloroso.  A sweetened Oloroso is known as Cream Sherry.

Fino and Manzanilla are pale straw-coloured, elegant and yeasty in character.  Served well-chilled, they are the world’s most sophisticated aperitifs.  Amontillado is golden in colour and more pungent, with a bouquet of hazelnuts and wonderful old wine.  Oloroso is darker amber and richer on the nose, with a full bouquet of dried fruit.  And yes… there are the delightful and exquisitely rich and sweet Pedro Ximenez (PX) Sherries (over ice cream…delicious!).  As the world comes to discover these fine wines, the costs will begin to soar, although today, high quality Sherry, with years—if not decades of aging in barrel, continues to be available at a fraction of their true value.

In Jerez we are invited to the grand Consejo Regulador—the Regulatory Counsel for Sherry and Brandy de Jerez—for an educational introduction to the region and the wine.

As in Sevilla, we will also be introduced to Jerez via our informative guided walking tour of the town—established by the Moors, in approximately 780 AD and claimed by

Alfonso X in 1264 as part of the retuning Spanish Catholic nation.

We will visit artisan bodegas to experience how Sherry is created in its various styles—all with much in common, while being unique.

At Gonzalez Byass, we will experience a fascinating and illuminating seminar and tasting at this venerable and architecturally notable bodega established in 1835—followed by dinner in the bodega—which will include the family’s red wines from their Bodegas Beronia in Rioja and their superb red from just outside the Sherry region, Bodegas Finca Moncloa. Lepanto Brandy de Jerez Gran Reserva after dinner—I think yes!

On a much smaller and charming scale, at Bodegas Fernando de Castilla, while we will participate in a tour and Sherry tasting—we will also experience the bodega’s range of stunning Brandy de Jerez . A hearty Andalusian lunch in the bodega will follow, during which we will also be poured the bodega’s red wine, again from just outside the Sherry region—very tasty!

And then there is Bodegas El Maestro Sierra established in 1830 where the bodega stands today, with regal 91 year old matriarch, Doña Pilar Pla at the helm of this most special place. Her Sherries remain remarkable to say the least, with great presence and persistence throughout the Sherry styles. You will experience them for yourself during our visit back into history.

The Bodegas Valdespino, established in 1264(!) is considered to create some of Jerez’s most focused if not fabled Sherries. Valdespino’s Fino Inocente’ solera (Sherry’s fractional blending system to provided assured uniformity) has ten criaderas (levels of barrels) rather than the more typical three or four. And the overall age of Inocente Fino at bottling is ten years (rather than the usual three to five years), an exceptionally long time under flor (the naturally occurring protective yeast layer) for a Fino.

Bodegas Tradicion while originally established in 1650 by the Rivero family, achieved great fame in the 19th century—and was invigorated in the 1990s by decedent, Joaquin Rivero, who with the great Jose Ignacio Domecq, established one of the most “traditional” and remarkable boutique Sherry bodegas—with casks of Amontillado, Palo Cortado, Oloroso, and Pedro Ximenez purchased from the superior houses of Valdespino and Domecq and then developed further.  And the Brandy de Jerez Gran Reserva—superb! During our tour and structured tasting, we will be able to view Sr. Rivero’s art collection which includes, Zubaran, Valazquez, Hiepes, Valdes Leal, Goya and more. Our visit will be memorable. Again—access to the inner sanctum.

In that Jerez is also closely associated with Carthusian horses or “Cartujanos”, the performance at the Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre, is truly a delight, you are certain to enjoy.

A visit to “El Palacio de Tiempo”… The Palace of Time (or The Clock Museum) is remarkable… expect significantly more than just clocks!

The second town of the Sherry Triangle is El Puerto de Santa Maria—where we will visit Bodegas Gutierrez-Colosia  established in 1838  situated at the mouth of the Guadalete River, ensuring sufficient humidity and cool sea breezes—and the most unusual Bodega Obregon—seemingly more an ancient, delightful tavern than a bodega. The Sherries of Puerto, I find, have a character between the roundness of Jerez Sherries and the elegance of the wines from Sanlucar de Barrameda. We will determine for ourselves!

We will also visit the third town of the Sherry Triangle Sanlucar de Barrameda where the elegant Manzanilla is created in this unique, more humid micro-climate at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River on the Atlantic. In Sanlucar we will visit the ancient Bodegas Barbadillo, established in 1821, to experience their superb range of Manazanilla Sherries and sips of their historic Amontillado, Palo Cortado, Oloroso, and PX from their ancient and dazzlingly expensive “Reliquia” bottlings.

From Sanlucar—we will drive the short distance to the vast and protected nature reserve of dunes and wetlands, Parque Nacional de Doñana to witness the rare vegetation, birds, and animals that find refuge there. The reserve can only be visited on “official tours” in the park’s rugged bus—and such arrangements are presently underway.

Before returning to our hotel in Jerez—for those who revel—and I mean revel in fresh, exotic, and superbly prepared seafood—that was in the sea some few hours—or minutes prior,  the name “Casa Bigote” is paradise!! Dinner will be special!! Manzanilla will be served!

And in speaking of cuisine—for those who joined me on our tour of Alicante, Jumilla, Yecla, and Almansa—and our most recent Parador tour—you will assuredly remember our “way beyond the norm!” cheese and wine tastings (in Alicante and Siguenza)—quite remarkable! The cheeses of Andalusia are artisanal and delicious—we will experience a focused Sherry and cheese tasting illustrating the perfect matches created. Sherry and Queso!

And there will be more—I continue to fine tune! And there will be a wonderful surprise per group!


Cost of Tour 

Air is not included. As noted, the tour commences in Sevilla on the dates associated with the respective groups. The cost includes our hotel rooms in the Alfonso XIII and the Sherry Park, our welcoming banquet at the Alfonso XIII, all breakfasts and lunch or dinner, our restaurant meals, our flamenco performance, our two guided walking tours in Sevilla, and our walking tour in Jerez, our guided tour of the Doñana nature reserve, our presentation at the Consejo Regulador of Jerez, admission fees to all historical sites and museums, admission to the Royal Equestrian performance and the Palacio del Tiempo (the clock museum), all bus and taxi transfers—and of course,  all bodega tours, tastings, and dinners or lunches in the bodegas, including our wine and cheese event. And also, a wonderful surprise awaits—you will not be disappointed!

Cost per person double occupancy      3222 Euros per person 

Single Supplement                                 290 Euros 

A non-refundable deposit of 940 Euros is required to confirm your reservation 

For further information, or for Reservation Forms, contact me at 416 927 9464. Do not forward your deposit without first receiving the Reservation Form

MADRID: Many of you intend to spend a night or some few days in Madrid—always a wonderful experience, prior to and/or following our adventure in Andalusia. Our hotel in Madrid, the so elegant Hotel Wellington provides us with their very good group rate. If you wish to spend some nights in Madrid as I am, I will be pleased to make your reservations, under The Spanish Wine Society.





What the writers say: 

“Thank you for sharing your energy and vision and for originating the most fun trip we have taken anywhere in this decade.  Thank you for sharing your passion with us.”

                   Jim and Carol White,International Food and Wine Writers Napa California 

“Perhaps no one in North America has a better grasp and understanding of the soul of Spanish wine making than Barry Brown.  I have seen the itinerary.  This tour will be memorable.”

                   Tony Aspler, Wine Educator, Writer and Author 

“The Spanish Wine Society is under the direction of the quixotic Spanish wine lover Barry Brown who travels, eats and drinks Español at every opportunity.  His annual Spanish wine tours are considered pivotal life experiences by those who have signed on.”

David Lawrason, Wine Educator, wine columnist for Toronto Life Magazine.



















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Deeply Meunier: Champagne Moussé Fils

Pinot meunier hasn’t had much respect in the wine world.   For winemakers in Champagne, it’s the secret lover they embrace with pleasure but don’t want their friends to find out about.  The historical poor reputation of the the grape (called meunier in the region) is the result of poor understanding of how and where to grow it and how to handle the fruit in the winery.  Today, producers understand the need for clearer juice, long fermentation, strict temperature control during fermentation (15o C) and malolactic fermentation.  These (and other) technical advances have promoted the use of meunier to add richness, elegance, and telltale toasted bread notes and a hint of red berry fruit to Champagnes.

Champagne Moussé Fils produces wines predominately based on pinot meunier.  Their house motto is “profondement meunier,” which translates as “deeply meunier.”  The varietal thrives on the fertile soils in the vineyards Moussé owns or controls at the western end of the Montagne de Reims (black clay over green clay over mixed clay and sand over Champenoise chalk).  The vignoble covers five family-owned hectares in Cuisles and two rented hectares in other villages on the same hillside.  These sites are largely unsuitable for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Champagne Moussé Fils was founded in 1923 by Eugène Moussé.   His great grandson Cédric is the current winemaker at the house.  Cédric is a convivial and energetic fellow who delighted CWW members visiting the winery in early October of 2016 generally and by disgorging a bottle à la volée.  His innovative inclination has led to heavy investment in sustainable practices at the winery ranging from using and recycling well water to relying on solar and other renewable energy sources at the winery.  He also engages in ongoing experimentation to identify best practices in the vineyard and the chai.

The Moussé range of Champagnes includes Cuvée Extra Or d’Eugène (Blanc de Noirs – Extra Brut, Solera 2003 – 2011, 80% Meunier, 20% Pinot Noir, low dosage), L’Or d’Eugène (Blanc de Noirs Solera 2003-2013, 80% Meunier, 20$ Pinot Noir), Terre d’Illite 2011 (Blanc de Noirs, 95% Meunier, 5% Pinot Noir), Spécial Club 2012 (Blanc de Noirs, 100% Meunier), Spécial Club 2012 (Rosé de saignée, 100% Meunier), Anecdote (Blanc de Blancs, 100% Chardonnay, Lieu dit “Les Varosses”).  None was less than very good, and the rest were excellent to outstanding.  The house produces fewer than sixty thousand bottles a year.  Two thirds of that is exported to markets in Europe, Canada, the US, South Africa and Asia.


Left:  Cédric Moussé’s energy, intelligence and creativity are strongly reflected in his family house’s physical plant and sustainable green practices as well as their wines.

Centre:  This scale model of the soil profile in the Moussé vineyards demonstrates the fertile black and green topsoils that make them too fertile for pinot noir and chardonnay.

Right:  Cedric obtained this stainless steel amphora to determine whether its shape might improve wines fermented and stored in it.




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Champagne: Stars in a Glass

Although good or better sparkling wines are produced around the world and have earned a place at your table, champagne is the very best of the bunch. It’s got a whole range of intense aromas and flavours ranging from apple, lemon and peach fruit (with a dash of raspberry in rosé versions), minerals and telltale autolysed yeast.  It manages full ripeness and creamy richness in the mouth held aloft on wings of crisp acidity.  It lingers on the palate for a very long time.  Champagne is not just refreshing fizz.  It’s real wine, to be savoured and reflected upon.

There are several reasons why champagne is so good. The Champagne region (starting about 50 km east of Paris) is located on the 49th parallel, making it a (thermally) cool place to grow grapes.  Full ripeness is hard to achieve in some years, but acidity is rarely cooked out of the fruit by warm weather as it can be in more southerly regions of production.  That acidity is responsible for champagne’s freshness which in some specimens can be frankly bracing.  Because most champagne is blended from wines grown in various subregions and in different years, fuller and older reserve wines can pack in such ripeness as is necessary for good balance with those acids.  The stock of reserve wines in Champagne amounts to 1.6 billion bottles, a five year supply.  Blenders won’t be running out of these wines any time soon.

The chalk soils of Champagne also contribute to the quality of the region’s wine. The soils, a kind of light loose limestone, are made up of fossilized animals which lived in the ancient ocean that covered the area.  It’s porous enough to allow rainwater to drain from the surface of the vineyards without flooding the vines, but it also holds water deeper down where it can be reached by deep roots in times of drought.  The chalk may also enhance the flavours of the grapes which grow on it.

Champagne acquires its particular character from its vinification and aging. However, the grape varietals used to produce the wine contribute their own tastes and textures to the final product.  The three types most commonly used are pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier.  Pinot noir, the grape of the velvety red wines of Burgundy, is planted on 38% of the region’s vineyards.  It provides the body, flesh and grip, the structural backbone essential to champagne’s blends, and the occasional raspberry nuance.  Pinot noir juice is racked off its black skins before it acquires their colour to produce a white wine.  (Still red pinot noir is added to white champagnes to create most rosés.  Others get the pink in by leaving the juice on the skins for a longer period, the saignee method.)

Chardonnay covers 30% of Champagne’s vignoble. Its wines are leaner than their Burgundian counterparts.  Sometimes difficult to enjoy in youth, chardonnay in champagne becomes exciting and snappy while remaining fine and delicate.  Its colour is paler than that of champagnes with black grapes in the blend.  Paradoxically, this white among the reds confers the greatest ability to age.  Chardonnay in blends and blanc de blanc champagnes have gained popularity over the years.  Wines like Salon, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne and Krug Clos de Mesnil now command superstar ratings (and prices).

Four other white grape varieties are permitted in champagne but are rarely used: pinot blanc, pinot gris, meslier and arbanne. (You can seriously impress your wine friends by naming them.)

Pinot meunier, planted on 32% of Champagne’s acreage, had a bad reputation until recently. It wasn’t meunier’s fault.  So little of the stuff is grown around the world that the folks who grew it in Champagne didn’t know what it needed to shine: different handling around harvest and in the winery.  Today, champagne houses acknowledge and take full advantage of meunier’s richness, elegance, telltale toasted bread notes and a hint of red berry fruit in champagnes.

The “méthode Champenois” by which champagne is made plays a central role in the quality and character of the wine. The original sparkling wines were created accidentally when the yeasts performing alcoholic fermentation became dormant when the temperature grew cool enough in autumn and came back to life the following spring.  At that time they could resume fermenting the sugar remaining in the wine, generating alcohol and CO2 gas.  The gas would form bubbles when the bottle was opened but caused bottles to explode with alarming frequency.

The champagne method, made possible by sturdy English bottles in the late 18th century, involved carrying out a deliberate second fermentation of the base wine in the bottle.  This is achieved by adding yeast and sugar to the still wine and capping it tightly to keep the gas in.

The champagne method does more than add the bubbles. It leaves behind the cadavers of the yeast cells from the second fermentation.  These deceased yeasts are dissolved by their own enzymes in a process known as autolysis.  Long aging of the wine on the yeast components (lees aging) ensures that champagne is well endowed with its sweet yeasty decadent flavours and aromas.  Autolyzed yeast also deters oxidation in champagne as it ages.  The bottles are gently shaken and gradually moved from the horizontal to the vertical (cap down).  When the time is right—eighteen months or decades later—the neck of the bottle is immersed in freezing saline.  The cap is removed and the potentially turbid solids accumulated on it are blown out in a winey ice plug.  Some sugar is added (the dosage), as little as 2 g/l for brut wines to over 20 g/l in extra dry or “riche” styles.  The bottle is then corked and laid down for a while (18 months or more is best) while it settles down and its components marry.  Et voilà, le champagne!

The organization of the wine industry in Champagne has led to great improvements in the wines, their sustainability, and environmental impact. The Comité Champagne, the latest name for the region’s wine advisory and regulatory body, is managing the status and evolution of champagne.  It also serves to maintain harmony between the 20,455 harvest-declaring growers who own 90% of Champagne’s vineyard area (holding less than 2 Ha on average) and the champagne houses responsible for 2/3 of the region’s total production and 90% of its exports.

Most people are familiar with big champagne houses like Moet et Chandon, Mumm, Roederer, Taittinger, Laurent-Perrier and Heidsieck. Each offers a range of styles from multi-vintage blends to blancs de blancs, blancs de noirs, wines of a single vintage, and single vineyard bottlings.  In Canada, prices begin around $45 and rise well into three figures for grand marque champagnes like Dom Perignon, Roederer Cristal, and La Grande Dame.  Many growers have begun producing and marketing their own champagnes, some of which are extremely exciting.  The holiday season is the perfect time to celebrate with something more than a modest new world bubbly.  Life is short.  Drink champagne!

[In early November I traveled in Champagne as an international member of the Circle of Wine Writers. We were hosted by the Comité Champagne.  Over the next while I’ll be publishing profiles of eight interesting and individual houses.]







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