Get ready for 2008 Champagnes. It is approaching fast and set to be a great year. One of the best.
Mr Champagne is aware we are on the cusp of 2016 and that the year of the Beijing Olympics is so last decade. He’s talking about the 2008 vintage, which champagne houses are releasing now to hit the all-important festive season. Bottles from this vintage are set to be far better than 2006 vintages, still widely available.
“It’s exciting,” Tyson Stelzer declares. “It’s a good time in Australia for champagne at the moment. There’s so much interest around varieties of champagne, especially among those who have a bit of understanding.” Which, let’s face it, is not most of us. But this, he says, is changing.
“We are drinking double the amount of champagne we were drinking five years ago. But at the same time we are drinking 8 per cent less sparkling wine in general. Sparking consumption has decreased, champagne consumption has increased, which overall is a trade-up to more expensive wines.”
Stelzer has spent the past month around Australia and in London conducting tastings, launching his book The Champagne Guide 2016-2017 and filming his television series People of the Vines. And he and his wife have just had their third child.
He’s tall, thin and angular, looks a bit like a high school science teacher — which he was. The world of wine, particularly champagne, was a hobby that became a career. His reputation is on the up; wine critics afforded his first champagne guide the same reception they give a standout shiraz, and the wise men of wine, such as James Halliday, regularly name-check him in their writings.
Stelzer cautions that the greatness of 2008 presents a bit of a double-edged sword. “At the moment we need to be a little more selective about the champagnes that are coming through,” he warns. Yes, 2008 is one of the best vintages in decades, and many non-vintage wines from the past two years have that “awesome year” as their base. But now many non-vintages are based on the “very difficult” 2010 and 2011 harvests, so be selective.
Australians love their champagne. Buoyed by a strong dollar we have risen to become the sixth biggest export market, punching well above our population weight. But our consumption is lopsided.
“We are drinking big company non-vintage entry cuvees,” Stelzer says. “And the proportion of (champagnes from single) growers we are drinking is among the lowest of all of the big champagne markets. The proportion of roses we are drinking is low, the proportion of vintage wines we are drinking is low, the proportion of anything but the top five champagne houses is low.”
So well done to Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Nicolas Feuillatte, GH Mumm and Laurent-Perrier. “Those top five are just kicking goals. They are selling much more here as a proportion than anywhere else in the world, which is fascinating.”
Like students, we have the enthusiasm without the knowledge.
Stelzer champions the excellent but unknown. Now the dollar has fallen, his window of opportunity to do so is a narrow one.
“Because our currency has taken a plunge, we will see some prices on some champagnes increase significantly in the next year or two,” he says.
Those that are to suffer most are the grower champagnes, the vineyards that bottle their own grapes rather than sell to larger houses. We drink half the number of grower bottles than several years ago. Our currency woes have snuffed out some experimentation, and Coles and Woolworths, through the ownership of big liquor chains such as Vintage Cellars and Dan Murphy’s, have gone for cheaper houses.
So is expensive champagne good and cheap champagne nasty? “No, thankfully. There are incredible growers out there such as Gimonnet, which used to be $35 to $45 when it was available from Coles. There is still some stock and it is brilliant, outstanding tiny grower, great vineyards, fanatical attention to detail. You can get awesome champagne for $35. For some people that is not cheap; you can buy a bottle of (sparkling Australian) Janz non-vintage for $25, which in my mind is better than anything of champagne for $25 on the shelves right now.”
Stelzer fell in love with wine during a decade as a teacher and department head in mathematics and physics. He wrote a bit online and, after a school holiday research project about screw cap technology, produced a booklet as thirst for knowledge about the new method of stoppering wine exploded. The booklet sold in 20 countries; conference invitations from South Africa, Japan, Britain and New Zealand flooded in.
On a trip to France’s Champagne region in 2010 he noticed the dearth of information on the myriad growers and houses and later produced his first Champagne guide.
I attempt to take him to task about the 100-point ranking system so beloved by wine writers. Surprisingly, he agrees.
“It is completely nonsensical to assign a two-digit score to a thing as complex as wine, let alone the grand complexities of sparkling wine, which is one of the most difficult wine styles in the world,” he says. “But unfortunately I am locked into a global regime where others have set the scale. The scale itself is ridiculous.”
He does review wines that he scores 80 points but never publishes them. “There are only so many plays on in Sydney every year. I have probably a million wines I could choose to include in my columns. The readers are not so interested in a bad review.” His advice? “Don’t spend too much time on the points, spend time focusing on the descriptions where you get a better feel for the cuvees.”
Just as Stelzer will champion an inexpensive wine, he gives some of the bigger maisons a score they judge beneath them.
“I am out of sorts with one or two chefs de cave at the moment who think my scores are too low,” he says. “That’s OK. They need to protect their territory and I need to be independent and honest, which I am.”
In his latest guide, after a tour of its command centre in Epernay, Stelzer writes that Moet & Chandon, the biggest house, is “one of the most exciting wine outfits in the world”, but still lowballs its Brut Imperial NV with a score of 87 points. “They’re not exactly my style, so the scores are lower than they would like them to be.”
He is frank about the price point of prestige cuvees. “Is a Ferrari really worth more than 100 times a Hyundai?” he muses. “Some of them are exorbitantly expensive and shouldn’t be. I have notes about some in the book that have a large amount of gangsta rapper following but not necessary the quality in the bottle.”
But other champagnes that cost hundreds are “absolutely world class”.
“There are some great cuvees starting to come through from 2008 — a very classic, very refined vintage. And long-lived; if you want to put something down for a child’s 21st, that’s the vintage to do it from, a beautiful vintage that I think will go down in time next to 1996 as one of the great vintages of the recent era.”
Vintage Report by Antinori / Italy
The season was characterized by an autumn and a winter which were not particularly cold and with little rain, conditions which favored a slightly early bud break compared to the preceding vintages. Spring, and the first vegetation, saw the appearance of adverse meteorological conditions, with frequent rainfall until the end of May which caused a slowing of plant growth, a slowing which, nonetheless, did not have harmful effects on vine health. June and July, instead, were warm and dry, while in August there was scattered rainfall which helped the vines to sustain regular growth of both the vegetation and the grapes.
The months of September and October were very favorable for harvest operations, thanks as well to temperature swings from daytime heat to nighttime coolness, optimal conditions for grape quality. Sangiovese was picked during the last ten days of September, while Cabernet continued to be harvested until the middle of October. From the very beginning of the harvest the musts showed very interesting colors and aromas, which indicated that the vintage was of very high level indeed.