In a world with greater wine knowledge than ever, why do we neglect sparkling?

Earlier this year, a wine director at a super cool, nationally renowned American restaurant told me: “You know, the French [sparkling winemakers] tell you that they only do one dosage. But, actually, they secretly do a bunch of micro-dosages.”

By its very nature and by definition, dosage can only be performed once in the life of a sparkling wine.

Also earlier this year, I spoke to a group of roughly 20 fine dining professionals and asked them their impressions of pas dosé sparkling wines. Not one of them knew what I was talking about.

Considering the role the sparkling wine plays in the fine dining experience and considering the category’s popularity in youthful fine wine culture today, a lacuna like that is helpful to no one — neither server nor guest nor to the restaurateur’s bottomline.

Ever since the dawn of the new era in wine connoisseurship in the U.S. and the rise of the übersommelier in the late 1990s, wine knowledge and awareness have exploded in this country. And more than ever, restaurant professionals have a treasure of media assets available to them in their quest to expand their knowledge.

When it’s common for sommeliers to be able to rattle off every growth in Volnay or every township in upper Piedmont or speak at length about the nuances of Nykteri, why is that knowledge of sparkling wine production has lagged so far behind?

In my two-year tenure working with the Franciacorta consortium (a partnership that ended in December but that’s another story), I traveled all over the U.S. talking about sparkling wines and sparkling wine production. And frankly, I was blown away by how this category is so rarely mastered by even the best and most successful in the business.

I ascribe the widespread insouciant approach to the fact that sparkling wine is arguably one of the most manipulative expressions of viticulture. Understanding how sparkling wines are made and what makes them unique takes a lot of time and study. It’s one of the most technical forms of winemaking and in many ways, sparkling wine runs counter to our fantasies about the historic natural wine movement. Just consider the sine qua non role of Chaptalization in sparkling wine production. There ain’t anything natural about that! (By the way, sine qua non is not pronounced seh-NAY-kwah-nun, like the wine from California; it’s pronounced SEE-neh kwah nohn).

Before I started working with the Franciacorta consortium, I was as guilty as the next floor sommelier in neglecting my knowledge of how sparkling wines are made and how to taste them properly. But thanks to my work with their bottler association, I had the opportunity to taste with a number of top winemakers and sommeliers and I was also very fortunate to get to taste a lot of above-my-paygrade sparkling wine from France.

The information is out there and easy to access: Jancis Robinson’s online edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine and Tom Stevenson’s introduction to Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine (print only, I believe) were key resources I used in upping my game (and I highly recommend both).

Another key moment for me was when I asked Bellavista winemaker Mattia Vezzola to share his insight into how to taste sparkling wine.

“Does the promise of the nose,” he said, “deliver in the mouth of the wine? That’s one of the hallmarks of great classic-method wine.”

Unfortunately, we tend to taste sparkling too hurriedly and there’s no getting around the fact that tasting (and learning how to taste) classic-method wine takes a lot of time and patience.

Yesterday, I attended an excellent trade tasting of sparkling wines presented by the cellar master at Gosset here in Houston. I really liked the presentation: he led the group through a flight of monovarietal expressions of their classic cuvée to illustrate the role that the different varieties play in shaping the style of the house. And I really liked the wines, as well.

The export manager also gave a thoughtful and insightful talk on the history of the appellation and its role and place in the world of fine wine (although I took issue with his etymology of the toponym Champagne, which does comes from the Latin campania, as he noted, but campania does not mean chalk nor is it related in any way to the word chalk, despite the role that chalk plays in the appellation).

He pointed out (rightly) that Champagne owes its historic fortune not to the French but to the British and Russians, who embraced the wines as a core expression of their fine dining culture.

In a lot of ways, I thought to myself, Champagne and sparkling wine in general are the result of a series of Bloomian misunderstandings. And that legacy, no doubt, has contributed to the ways that the wines are still misunderstood today.

2 thoughts on “In a world with greater wine knowledge than ever, why do we neglect sparkling?

  1. I think this is all true and worth pointing out as Jeremy does so well here. A related thought that has been gnawing at me for a long time: in champagne, it seems to be very difficult to get terroir into the bottle. i can only guess at why. i suspect that the formula for mediocre bubbly from there is underripe fruit + chaptalization + lees aging + dosage = an overpriced bottle of denatured wine. in other words, the nose and flavor of these wines are derived from the lees and the dosage (and sometimes oak aging) and show little or no sense of place, unless one just means, “this is a place where we can’t ripen without a lot of work that we aren’t willing to do.” good champagne is delicious and expensive. bad champagne is a refreshing, pricey fraud.

  2. You should also check out Richard Juhlin’s work. He’s without a doubt the preeminent authority on Champagne. Gosset is perhaps my favorite producer (at least of those I can relatively afford). Their Grand Rosé is sublime. Sorry I missed that tasting!

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