Sunday, September 15, 2013

WSET: Pass With Distinction! And Some Champagne...

Well, the results are in.  After waiting for an interminably long time, my WSET test results arrived in the mail.   I'd had an informal confirmation via email, but I wanted to wait until I had my certificate in my hot little hands before I started crowing about my results online.  I have talked about this certification before, most notably in this post, but to refresh your memory, this was a certification I spent my winter and spring taking classes and studying for.   Like other wine certifications, everything rode on the grade of one all-or-nothing examination.  The exam is broken into two sections, theory and tasting, and a grade is issued for each, as well as an overall grade.  Unlike previous certifications I've taken, (the Certified Specialist of Wine, namely, on which I scored a 94%, thankyouverymuch) there is no numerical grade given.  There are only degrees of success.  One may Pass, Pass With Merit, and Pass With Distinction.   Think of it as roughly analogous to passing with an A, a B, or just passing. 

I am pleased to report that I passed the tasting element With Merit and the theory portion With Distinction, and received an overall grade of Pass With Distinction. 

There is nothing like having one's hard work pay off with success and recognition.   All the time and brainpower I dedicated to this certification last winter and spring was well invested.  It is wonderful to get to enjoy the dividends.  And when one gets good news, what do we do?  We celebrate.  With Champagne, naturellement. 

We broke out a bottle of Pierre Moncuit Blanc de Blancs NV (non-vintage).  This was a bottle that we brought back with us from France on our last trip, in the summer of 2012.   I regret to inform you that this is not widely available in the USA.  Someone, somewhere probably has some to sell you, but for the majority of my readers, this unfortunately won't be something you can just stroll down to your local wine shop and pick up.   We paid about 30 Euro for this in Reims.   Be reassured that Champagne costs what Champagne costs, no matter where you are in the world, and it isn't any cheaper in France.

True Champagne is always a bit of a treat around here.  While I love the bubbles, I don't love the price tag, and often you'll find Cremant de Bourgogne, Spanish Cava or Italian Prosecco in our glasses, because, quite frankly, true Champagne is expensive.   The pay-to-play for a bottle of Champagne starts at about $25, and can go from there to the stratosphere.  And like many aficionados, the price of the things we love often exceeds what we are able to regularly afford.  I don't think I'm alone on this, and this is a big reason why Champagne is considered a celebratory drink.  You might put the cheap fizzy stuff from California in your Mimosa, but you save the good stuff for the special occasions. 

This was a lovely bottle of Champagne, but then again, aren't they all?  I always say that standing in the Champagne aisle of a wine shop is like standing in a room full of beautiful women: some guys like brunettes, some guys prefer blondes, and personally I've always been fond of redheads, but when it comes down to it, they're all delightful.

The Pierre Moncuit NV Blanc de Blancs had the fine bead and small bubbles that are a sure giveaway for a Champagne of great quality.   They continued steadily the whole time we enjoyed the bottle, evincing quality again.  The nose was dominated by green apple, a hint to its Blanc de Blanc designation, and it had an intricate complexity on the palate.   Austerely dry, with a clean lemon acidity, notes of apple, citrus and mineral presented themselves upon first taste.   Further notes of yeast and a biscuit breadiness evolved, along with some hazelnut tones.   A chalky mineral finish lingered on persistently after each sip.  Beautiful.  If you can find this, pick it up.  Spend the money, open it for a celebration, but get it if you find it.

Would you like to know more?

Like all French wines, there is some vocabulary to learn if you want to decipher what comes from where and how good it is.  I could spend all day  and write a chapter about Champagne and sparkling wine production, but I'll try and help you understand some of the nomenclature with a quick and dirty bit of Champagne demystification.  

We can start with the big stuff.  First off, this is a CHAMPAGNE.   Now, most people, myself included, casually use that name to describe any wine that has bubbles in it.   But Champagne is a protected geographic designation, and that's why I am often heard using the term true Champagne.   While only fizzy stuff is produced in this region of France, and all Champagnes are sparkling wines, not all sparkling wines are Champagne.   Lots of places around the world make bubbles, and there are a couple of methods employed to produce effervescent wines, but to be a Champagne, you must be from Champagne.   There are lots of other rules regarding production even within Champagne, making the French naturally very protective of this word.   And while there are still some holdovers from the USA who continue to label their products as "California Champagne, " they'll find their wine getting poured into the harbor if they try and import it into the EU. 

What's so brutish about it?  Because Champagne evolved from a sweet wine into a dry wine with each refinement of production technology, there is always a designation of dryness on the label.  While it's counter-intuitive, Extra-Dry is not the driest level of Champagne.   I'll spare you and I won't get too technical with grams of sugar per liter here,  but most of the Champagne you'll encounter on the shelves of your local shop will be from one of three categories: Brut (the driest), Extra-Dry (dry, but with just a barely perceptible bit of residual sugar) and Demi-Sec (noticeably sweet).   There are other gradations that subdivide here, but they don't pop up as much.

Ok, what's it made from?  Champagne production centers on three grapes, one white, Chardonnay, and two black, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.   Rose' Champagne is labeled as such, sometimes there is no mention of the grape composition at all, but sometimes white Champagnes carry an additional level of designation.  You'll see the terms Blanc de Blancs and Blanc De Noirs.  All that this means is that the Champagne is a white wine made from white grapes (meaning 100% Chardonnay) or black grapes (meaning 100% of either or both of the black grapes).  By controlling the amount of time the juice sits on the skins, it is possible to make a white wine out of black grapes.  Sometimes a Blanc de Noirs will have a slight onionskin tint to it, maybe just  a shade of salmon, but it won't be the definitive pink of a rose. 

What do you mean by Non-Vintage?  Most Champagne will not have a year on the label.  The vast majority of Champagne is made from a blend of wines that were pressed in different vintages.  That's how any given Champagne producer can achieve a consistent flavor profile year after year after year, by blending from different lots of juice.   Yep, they have tanks of wine, just sitting around for years, waiting to get blended.   The Cellar Master is the guy (or often panel of guys) who makes this blend, called the Assemblage, and arguably has the best job in the joint.   Although, I've always believed that people with this sensitive of a palate are born, not trained, essentially gifted, but that's a different post.  In a really, really good year a house can declare a vintage, and release a wine made from grapes that were all harvested in a single year, but even then, they always hold a little back, for use in future blends.  Vintage Champagnes will always have a year displayed prominently on the label.  You'll also pay more for them.

Where did it come from, and how does it rate?  Wines that carry  just the designation of Champagne may be sourced from vineyards all over the region, but by reading the label closely, there are sometimes additional levels of distinction you may ascertain.  There are a few geographic sub-regions in the Champagne delimitation, the names of which you probably won't see on a label.   But, within these regions, there are several villages which hold the qualitative designations of either Grand Cru  or Premier Cru, whose names you will sometimes see.   While the above terms Grand Cru and Premier Cru mean different things in each of the various French wine regions where they are employed, in Champagne it all has to do with the quality of the grapes and the price they fetch at market.   The grapes for this wine came from Grand Cru vineyards in the village of Le Mesnil Sur Oger, meaning they are from one of the 17 top rated villages and vineyards in all of Champagne. 

Got your reading glasses on?   Each Champagne producer is issued a number by the French Government that must be printed somewhere on the front or back label, generally in a tiny, tiny font.  It can usually be found down by the sulfite warning.  There is a 2 letter prefix to this number: either NM, CM, or RM.   These letters tell us about how the Champagne producer comes by their grapes.  Champagne is dominated by many big producers, the big recognizable names, who purchase grapes from small growers.  In fact, the lion's share of the grapes grown in Champagne are turned into Champagne by firms who don't own much, if any, land.  This is designated with NM for Negociant-Manipulant, meaning a grape-buyer/ wine maker, someone who negotiates the price of grapes and then manipulates them into wine.  The opposite of this is an RM, or Recoltant-Manipulant, or a grower who vinifies their own grapes.  These are the true small-batch, artisanal producers of the region, many of whom got into the wine biz because they were tired of settling for the prices that the big houses felt like paying them.  And then there are the CM's, or Collective-Manipulant producers, which are collective associations of growers who pool their resources to fund a production facility.   The Pierre Moncuit is a RM.  RM's and CM's are most frequently grouped along geographic lines, with their wines generally coming from one of the better rated Grand Cru or Premier Cru villages.

Head spinning yet?   You probably didn't know so much information could be found on such a clean, unadorned label such as this one.  There's a whole lot more I haven't covered here.   This post doesn't even begin to go into the Methode Champenois,  the actual process of making Champagne, much less all the minor rules concerning sur lie aging, dosage levels, and all of the other, more detailed elements of the AOC requirements.  There are also the myriad rules and requirements concerning sparkling wines from other places in the world.  But I'll make you a deal.  If you pass over with a bottle of cold Champagne, I'll be happy to tell you about them.

1 comment:

  1. In the interest of full disclosure, this post has been in the works for some time now. While it did take the WSET a good eight weeks to get my results to me, I have had this news for close to 2 months now. I'm still pretty amped about it though.