I consider Tyson Stelzer one of the most hard-working wine writers around. He is totally dedicated to his work and plans each day meticulously to fit in as much as he can with tasting and writing. His standards are extremely high, as he no doubt feels a great responsibility in getting this thoughts and evaluations right, for the sake of the wine producer as well as his readers. I admire his dedication and attention to detail, as well as his forthright approach and sense of correctness and ethics. He calls it the way he sees it, but with sensitivity.
Knowing this, one shouldn’t be surprised by the quality of ‘The Champagne Guide’. Even though Tyson is resident in Brisbane in Australia on the other side of the world from Champagne, his earlier editions have earned him high praise from fellow writers across the globe, and indeed, he was the ‘International Champagne Writer of the Year’ in 2011, an award given under the auspices of Champagne house Louis Roederer. As he mentions in his book, he spent several weeks in the Champagne region tasting and researching the wines, understanding the land, the processes and meeting the people. It’s not hard to see that Champagne and its wine hold a special place for Tyson.
A Practical Introduction
Although the book is ‘only’ a guide, it is very comprehensive for the layman without making it a technical manual. Tyson not only provides a background to the region, the making of the wine and its unique attributes, but also discusses critical issues. The introductory section covers the different districts, what’s grown there and the style of the wines. One of the very few disappointments in the book is the map of the Champagne region. Instead of one map which provides an overall perspective, but insufficient detail, there should also be maps of each district closer-up.
Tyson covers the making of the wine in the cellar, the concept of terroir, minerality, organics and biodynamics. The topic of global warming and how it may affect the region comes up, as well as the controversial aspects of yields, boundaries and classifications. He reports on the progress with measures taken to protect the quality of the wine, including the growing use of DIAM, and the effects of degradation due to UV light. No discussion of Champagne would be complete without commentary on the contemporary belief that only grower Champagnes are the true expressions of the wine, and that houses are not, Tyson debunking that concept, stating the inter-relationship is the reality. Other topics include the trend of zero-dosage wines and whether consumers should consider purchasing parallel imports. Tyson finishes his introduction with tips on the best way to serve Champagne.
I have one further quibble with the book apart from the map. I feel the introduction lacks depth in describing the different vintages of the wines that appear in the following pages. The character of the years can be gleaned in various sections of the book, but it would be good to have it all together, maybe with a rating chart. I do understand that producers succeed to varying degrees each year in making their wines, so vintage charts are very general, but an overview would provide a good perspective.
The Houses and the Wines
This guide is arguably the most up-to-date book on Champagne at present. To ensure this, the author has taken the innovative steps of tasting all the wines in it during the first half of 2013. The wines tasted are those that are on the market. As we all know, wines evolve and present different personalities at different times of their lives, and the book is a snapshot of them at a certain period that is relatively the same for all of them. Tyson states that “Champagne is a fast moving target”. He also believes that the location and circumstances where the wines are tasted can have an effect on their perception too. And critically, the date when Champagnes are disgorged is one of the most important factors. All of these points are accounted for with in his notes on each wine, which have the date of disgorgement, base vintage and location of tasting it. Thus a wine may have more than one tasting note.
The wines tasted are all scored on the 100 point scale. Tyson explains his scores in understandable terms too, in a section on how to use the guide: “anything less than 85 is faulty, less than 90 is sound, but unexciting, and 91 is where all the fun begins. A 94 point Champagne has impeccable purity and immaculate balance – a gold medal in a wine show”. For the convenience of the reader, there is a chapter “The Best Champagnes of the Year”, placed near the front of the book, the top wines separated by price, and then by style: Blanc de Blancs, Rosé and Low-Dosage within a price range not marked by extremes. There are four 100 point wines: Billecart-Salmon ‘Le Clos St-Hilaire 1998, Dom Perignon ‘Oenotheque’ 1996, Krug ‘Clos d’Ambonnay’ 1998 and Krug ‘Clos du Mesnil’ 2000.
Separately, he has a ‘Hall of Honour’ in rating the Champagne house or producer, with a score out of 10 points. Only houses that score 5/10 and above are included, these numbering 79, and you’ll see some major houses not on the list, such as G.H. Mumm and Moet & Chandon. Clearly, Tyson is not afraid of making the tough calls. There are four houses rated 10/10, these being Billecart- Salmon, Bollinger, Krug and Salon.
In a book that is 360 pages long, the main body of it, 290 pages, is devoted to profiles of 93 houses, with tasting notes of the range of Champagnes tasted for each house. The profiles discuss recent history, philosophies, technique and points of significance or difference to that house, and indicate the author’s direct contact. There are over 500 Champagnes described. The tasting notes are detailed, personal, informative and evocative. Clearly, Tyson’s passion for quality and style, and his capture of a wine’s character can be easily seen. The size of this section demonstrates his thoroughness and commitment to being as reasonably comprehensive as he can to a general audience. For the majority of the tasting notes, there is a colour bottle-shot. One final feature is the photography, much of which is the author’s own.
I can only join in with other reviewers in giving praise to Tyson for this superb Guide to Champagne. It’s a reflection of his work ethic and his love of the wines and region, and how they fit in with the world of wine. There’s a ton of information and detail here, and opinion too, which is absolutely necessary to make qualitative judgements. It’s opinion that I trust. I heartily recommend the book to you.
The Champagne Guide 2014-5015, By Tyson Stelzer
Hardie Grant Books (Australia), Richmond, Victoria, 2013 ISBN 9781742705415