Friday, January 26, 2018

Why is Champagne So Expensive?

There are several reasons for the luxury price tag on a bottle of Champagne.  The biggest one is the labor-intensive process in which it is made.   Unlike still wine, Champagne requires several added steps involving significant hands-on toil by a cadre of highly-specialized winery workers.   Moreover, the method of making these hallowed bubbles requires a lengthy period of time.  Time is money.

The unique process of making Champagne is one of the biggest reasons for its lofty price.  Once the grape juice ferments to wine, Champagne goes through an entirely separate process to create its bubbles.  This is called the Methode Champenoise and these words appear on every bottle of sparkling wine made in the Champagne district of France.  By law, no other region or country can use these words, or call their wine Champagne.

The Methode Champenoise involves a “secondary fermentation” in the bottle.  Already fermented still wine is placed in a bottle along with a tiny amount of sugar and yeasts.  A cork is then added.  Over the period of several weeks the added yeast eats the sugar and a secondary fermentation process occurs.   Carbon dioxide is a by-product of fermentation.  This carbon dioxide is responsible for Champagne’s illustrious bubbles.

  Dead yeasts from the secondary fermentation must be removed.

Once the yeast cells have consumed all the sugar they die off.  Now, comes the process for getting rid of the unsightly dead yeast sediment in the bottle.  It begins with “riddling.”  Bottles are placed in a special rack which allows them to be very slowly rotated to a vertical position over time (the cork end of the bottle ultimately ends up at the bottom).  Over a period of several months, each bottle is turned daily by a “riddler.”  Slowly, slowly each bottle is rotated so that over time the spent yeast cells gravitate toward the neck of the bottle. But, there’s much more.

  Riddlers painstakingly turn each bottle daily

Now that the yeasts have all floated to the neck of the now positioned vertical bottle, they must be removed.  This involves another hands-on process called “disgorgement.”  In short, the bottle is kept in its vertical position (cork side down) and placed in ice just long enough for the area near the cork to freeze.  With lightening-speed the cork is removed (and with the cork the frozen dead yeasts adhering to the cork are also removed), and a new cork is placed….all at the blink of an eye by a well-seasoned “disgorger.”    But the Champagne is not ready yet.  It now needs to “rest” for months or even years before it is sold. 

       Dead yeasts accumulate in the vertically positioned bottle & are frozen before removed.

Another reason that Champagne is pricey is the notion of supply and demand.  The Champagne region is the smallest wine region in France and produces a limited number of bottles.  Globally, Champagne accounts for <1% of total wine production.  To further complicate the issue Champagne is France’s most northern wine area.  There are some years in which grapes do not ripen adequately, thus further limiting availability and driving up the cost.

In summary, the Champagne process is long and complex, with many steps along the way that necessitate workers with well-honed special skills.  Production is limited.  All of this translates to do-re-mi for the consumer.   Wine Knows will be visiting both the Champagne and Burgundy regions in June 2019.  For more information about this trip visit


Friday, January 19, 2018

Burgundy & Champagne Awarded UNESCO

                                               Burgundy's unique Cote d'Or ("golden slope")

Now joining the ranks of the world’s most notable wine regions, Burgundy and Champagne have been granted World Heritage status by the United Nations.  Others include Hungary’s Tokaj region, the Douro in Portugal, Bordeaux and the Loire of France, Piedmont in Italy, the Rhine in Germany, along with Sicily’s Pantelleria Island.

While UNESCO lists several criteria for selection, the one criteria that all must have is an “outstanding universal value.”   Burgundy’s wines have had a cult following for some time.  Champagne has long been considered as the world’s best sparkling wine.  So, some may be asking what’s the big deal?  The World Heritage status matters, even for those already-in-the know wine lovers.  It ups the ante for difference.  After all, if there were no differences in wines then why should some cost so much more money?

                       Deep limestone soil has an impact on the nuances of Champagne's taste

A World Heritage wine region reinforces the concept of uniqueness.  It’s a distinction of place.  While there are killer Pinots and Chardonnays produced in California, Oregon, New Zealand and Australia, Burgundian versions of these varietals are incapable of being reproduced anywhere else.  Similarly, the Franciacorta district of Northern Italy is making absolutely jaw-dropping sparkling wines, but they are just a little different from Champagne. The voice of the land speaks.  While wine styles can be copied, the differences from terroir cannot be replicated.   Differences matter, and thus the UNESCO award.

Wine-Knows will be visiting both Burgundy and Champagne in June 2019.  At this time there are a few seats remaining.  

Viva la différence!  

Friday, January 12, 2018

Wine from a New Old World

           Uber modern winery in Hungary--Wine Knows will stay on this dramatic estate 

Visiting Hungary’s wine regions offers a tasting trip around a new Old World. 
State-of-the-art wineries right out of Napa Valley and winemakers armed with
viticultural degrees from top international universities are juxtaposed with ancient
cellars and winemaking traditions that remind us of this country’s remarkably rich
wine heritage.

Like most countries in Europe, Hungary’s history with wine grapes dates back to
the Romans.  In the 11th century Hungary was a key player in wine production. 
During the Ottoman occupation of the 16th and 17th century, however, this all
changed as alcohol was forbidden due to tenants of the Muslim religion. Tokaj was
the exception as its wine production thrived thanks to it being an independent
state of Transylvania.

In the 1700’s Hungary once again  became a formidable force in the wine-making world.  The course of wine history changed for all of Europe in the late 1800’s when a bug called Phylloxera destroyed nearly every vineyard on the continent.  (Interestingly, it was, a Hungarian who played a major role in developing a Phylloxera-
resistant root stock that got the wine industry moving again).  Post World War II
Communism was the final nail in the coffin.  A once flourishing wine industry was
relegated to producing bulk wine for the masses.

Today, Hungary is the 17th largest producer of wine in the world.  To put its
regional size in perspective, it is larger in wine production than neighboring
Austria, but smaller than its neighbors Bulgaria and Romania.  Currently that are
>150,000 acres under vine spread across the Hungary’s 22 wine regions and sub-

Hungary joined the EU in 2004.  Financing from the EU has catapulted Hungary
from the downward spiral of Communism into a new world of opportunity. 
Hungary has stepped up to the plate, especially the Tokaj region.  One of the few
in the wine world to reinvent itself, Tokaj seized the opportunity to turn from sweet
wines to dry.  Old World Tokaj is a Cinderella story.   Many of Tokaj’s wines are
now stunning dry whites.  They are using the same Old World grape (Furmint) but
vinifying them bone dry.  Furmint is becoming the new darling varietal of many

But, Hungary is not a one trick pony.  The country is making some gorgeous red
wines.  In fact, one of Hungary’s reds beat out one of the most famous Old World
chateau in all of Bordeaux in a blind tasting. 

If you’re looking for something new to try in the New Year, but appreciate well-
crafted Old World wines, put Hungary on your 2018 list.  The country is emerging
as an exciting player on the international wine scene.  Highly recommend one of
the following producers that this autumn Wine-Knows will be visiting (sorry but this tour is sold out with a waiting list).

          Dry White (alpha order):
                 Svent Tamás
          Red (alpha order):
             Attila Gere

Friday, January 5, 2018

Rock-Star Minerality

                                          Minerality can add a compelling nuance to wine

“Lick it” the winemaker instructed.  “Lick the rock” he demanded of our bulging eyeballs’ group of Wine-Knows.   We were in a vineyard filled with rocks at the base of the Andes mountains in Argentina and we all giggled…and then complied.  Suddenly it became very quiet as everyone was seemingly trying to process the wonder and the words to explain what they had just tasted.

“Salt” one Wine-Know volunteered.  Another offered a caveat:  “What I taste is the smell of wet earth.”  This prompted another tour participant to chime in that she tasted the “smell of river pebbles.”  A few offered comments about the texture of what they tasted describing it as “pasty” or “thick.”  All appeared to be surprised about what they had just experienced.

Minerality can be a difficult concept, especially for new wine drinkers.  First, most novices are drawn to fruity wines.  Second, the majority of wines are fruit-forward so that subtle nuances of minerality take a back seat.  Last, there isn’t a lot of common language to discuss these mineral-like smells and tastes.  This makes minerality even tricky for some veterans to wrap their arms around.

Where minerality in wine comes from is still unknown.  We don’t really know how it happens although there are many theories.  What is known is that there are certain chemicals that have been isolated in wine that have been shown to promote smells and tastes of minerals.  With flavors of strawberries in a Pinot Noir, or green apples in a Chardonnay we understand that there are not actually berries or apples in these wines.  Thus, it makes sense that certain compounds would give off non-fruit smells and instead offer hints of minerals.

The best recommendation I have for trying to understand minerality in your glass is Assyrtiko wine from the island of Santorini, Greece.  This varietal is all about minerals and there's little competing fruit (you can actually taste the minerality of the island's famous volcano).  Suggested best producers of this enticing white wine include Gaia, Sigalas and Boutari.

Rock-out in 2018!