In Honor of Saint Valentine’s Day, Eight Thousand Bottles of Champagne
A review of Richard Juhlin’s rather large book, A Scent of Champagne Richard Juhlin’s Scent of Champagne immediately evokes a sense of luxury befitting his subject. Broad and heavy in format, printed on fine paper with high detailed photos, Juhlin’s tome is the sort of thing one might conspicuously display on broad coffee tables populated by any of the latest fashionable art monographs. The opening sentence of Juhlin’s prologue sums it up nicely: “How beautiful.” Beautiful this book surely is, very much capturing the fantasy that Champagne marketers wish to project upon the world.
Beyond the fantasy, however, one might ask what is the practical use of such a book to someone in the wine world? There is a certain irony to this question. Those in the world of wine, whether its producers, its marketers, its salespeople and servers, its commentators and critics, and most importantly, the informed, interested consumers, normally desire something useful from their wine books: technical, sociological, historical, sometimes even gastronomic. Aesthetics, though appreciated, are something entirely different. The irony, of course, is that there is little particularly useful about fine wine itself. Sure, it’s a social lubricant. In days that safe water was lacking, wine offered sanitary refreshment. There are certain health benefits (anti-oxidants, etc.). And, many of us have convinced ourselves there is a natural liaison between certain wines and certain foods. (“Natural” in this case is at least partially a social construct. Palates trained according to western European paradigms respond to certain wines differently than those acculturated otherwise: the sensations of what it is to be sweet or sour, dry or bitter, differ. And plenty of non-imbibers relish their dishes just as heartily as those who also take the grape.) But, for bare utilitarian purposes, fine wine is superfluous.
Still, few of us live in an austere world of utility (and certainly not those who bother reading this commentary). We need our art, our beauty, our pleasures, Champagne, among them. Juhlin’s ardor for Champagne is evident from the start. More than a book about Champagne, Juhlin’s Scent of Champagne is about his love for Champagne, and his love for his love for Champagne. And, his love for himself for loving Champagne so much. Turning Scent’s colorful pages, it is as easy to be swept along by the author’s passion for the stars that Dom Perignon was said to have tasted as it is to be annoyed by his self-adulation. (One should thank him, however, for not repeating the myth that Dom Perignon created Champagne).
Juhlin celebrates himself as being the world’s greatest Champagne taster. Certainly, he has tasted a lot of bubbles in his life. (The book on review has scores for 8000 wines). More than quantity, however, Juhlin’s book seeks to confirm his credentials as a master taster, able to discern, blind, both vintages and producers for wines dating back to the 1920s as related from Beijing by Edouard Cointreau in the book’s forward, and later, by his friend and colleague Karsten Thurfjell, a Swedish writer. (That praise for an author comes in the forward is no surprise. That it has to be affirmed again in 1400 words at the end of chapter one speaks to something else). But, Juhlin’s olfactory superpowers, both in immediate experience as well as in memory, seem to have downsides, too. For, the man who can sniff out the nuances that separate two unmarked wines as coming from the 1934 and 1945 vintages, and then identifying the houses that produced them, Bollinger and Piper-Hiedsieck, respectively, must also deal with a world
of stale cigarette butts, showers of cheap perfume, and his apparent bête noir, the scent trail of [soiled] dishcloths. (One cannot help thinking of Patrick Suskind’s anti-hero Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, though Juhlin’s assures us that he can stink like the best of us. His stink just doesn’t bother him, unlike Grenouille, who was bothered precisely by the fact that he didn’t smell – that is, stink, at all). No doubt, each of us is challenged by life in his own way.
One wonders if all those scents affected Juhlin’s ability to say much of substance.
Chapter one articulates Juhlin’s journey into the world of the magical beverage he loves so much. In the second chapter, Juhlin attempts some explanation of the Champagne region and the wine in general. He does a spotty job of it. Juhlin talks chalk and has some striking photos of the white stuff. He says the quality and quantity of chalk in the Champagne region’s soil determines wine quality, but other than saying that vineyards in the chalk-deficient department of Aube aren’t as fine those in departments to the north, he doesn’t offer more detail. Maddeningly, there is no explanation of what is meant by grand cru versus premier cru. Do the terms refer to vineyards or to villages or to estates à la bordelaise? A map that seems recycled from an old edition of Robinson/Johnson’s Wine Atlas does list the names of Champagne village classifications, separating them between Grand Cru and Premier Cru, but in the Premier Cru list, villages are separated by percentages that are unexplained. One might infer that 99% Mareuil-sur-Aÿ means that 99% of the village’s vineyards are classified Premier Cru, but what about the figures 95% and 90% for Bergères-lès-Vertus, (white grapes and black grapes, respectively)? Again, one can guess (or know from one’s one study), but why wouldn’t Juhlin explain? Are there differences other than chalk content soil that differentiate one classified village/vineyard from another? Slope, exposition, drainage, for instance? And, does Juhlin even have an opinion on whether this classification system is adequate, let alone fair? Juhlin doesn’t say, and one suspects that he doesn’t really concern himself with such matters. Other than noting that Pinot Meunier is frost hardy and therefore widely planted in the cooler portions of the Marne Valley, Juhlin also doesn’t discuss other reasons region’s main grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier) are planted where they are. And, what about the differences between designated growing regions such as Montagne de Reims, Côte de Blanc, Côte de Sezanne, etc. Are they meaningful? Even casual Champagne lovers might want to know.
Juhlin’s explanation of the process Champagne is more thorough, though he barely mentions the considerations that go into the step of dosage, the post-disgorgement sweetening of the wine that is far from incidental to the final product. Calling dosage merely a “sugar solution,” There is no mention that some producers favor their liqueur d’expédition to be made from sweet grape must or wine, or sweetened brandy over just simple syrup. He describes different kinds of Champagne: non-vintage, sweet Champagne, vintage Champagne, blanc de blancs, blanc de noirs, prestige, vinothèque, unsweetened, and rosé, categories we might understand, but he does not explain (or even mention) the explicit, official classifications for wine style: brut zéro, extra brut, brut, extra-dry, dry, demi-sec, and doux, which are determined by the wine’s residual sugar. Juhlin disdains sweet styles of wine, and dislikes unsweetened (brut zéro/non-dosé) versions, too, but he seems unconcerned with variations within the most common type: brut, nor how some producers have gradually changed their dosage to accommodate shifting tastes. Is it just me, or does Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut seem less sweet than before? (Still too cloying for my taste). And what about difference in dosage for different markets? Does a brut always taste not so sweet?
Chapter three gives Juhlin’s advice for enjoying Champagne. Juhlin explains how to pack bottles for transport on an airplane (hard sided luggage, not too crowded), how to store these wines, and advises how to open and serve bottles (did you know that flying Champagne corks are the number one cause of eye injuries in France? Attention! And, even if the statistic isn’t true, it’s good to remain vigilant. No word, though, on the number of wrists slashed by people trying open their bottles via saber). Once poured (ideally into glasses he designed, in machine-made or hand-blown options) Juhlin offers sensible advice on how to taste Champagne. Look at the wine’s color, first, then its mousse (though, it is admitted that one can only judge its quality by the way it feels in the mouth), then smell – first, without swirling the glass, second, by a gentle twirl. Ideally, we’d be able to smell like dogs and catalog these scents like humans. After a whirl or two, one gets down to tasting, an exercise that is both natural and also cultivated. Juhlin is certainly correct that, intrinsic talent for some aside, tasting well takes a lot of practice. Keep at it for a few years and one can truly be a connoisseur. And, by the way, it’s better to enjoy Champagne outdoors, at the snowy foot of the Matterhorn, on a grassy slope below Sacre-Coeur (though look out for the merde de chien!), on Hermitage hill in the Rhône, etc.
Lest one be carried away by the indulgence of it all, Juhlin cautions the reader about the hazards of excess alcohol consumption. One can be assured, though, that the liver senses the nature of the beverage consumed. Apparently, the liver favors Champagne over beer. That’s probably because (according to Juhlin) – “disregarding the alcohol,…[Champagne] is almost a health drink. Few drinks are as clean and rich in anti-oxidants and minerals as real champagne.” Lest other wine be excluded: “It is now fully established that the risk of cardiovascular disease decreases significantly because cholesterol levels are reduced if you drink a few glasses of wine a day.” (p. 93). A few glasses per day? Three or more? One glass per day, three or more per week is what studies tend to say. Of course, there is no word on liver cirrhosis, but who wants to spoil the party?
(Speaking of parties, here’s a suggestion for when things grow dull)
In Chapter four, Juhlin offers some advice on visiting the Champagne region. Once again, his enthusiasm bubbles forth with useful suggestions for tours, board, and lodgings. In the same chapter, Juhlin provides profiles of three Champagne
Biodynamic grower-producer Franck Pascal on top. Juhlin, though respectful, is less impressed. (Courtesy Louis-Dressner)
producers, one a family producer (Jean-Marc Lallier-Deutz, Deutz), one conglomerate (Benoît Gouez, Moët), and one a grower-producer (Jacques Diebolt, Diebolt-Vallois). Juhlin apologizes for profiling only three producers in a book where 8000 wines are discussed, but says that is all he really has room for in the current 400 page book. Perhaps more room could have been found if Juhlin devoted fewer pages to lauding his excellent sense of taste. In any case, the three profiles he does devote space for are unsatisfying, offering no sense of the concerns, ecological, viticultural, production, or marketing that undoubtedly occupies the thoughts and activities of these three men. Rather, we are treated to superficial biographies of Messieurs Lallier-Deutz, Gouez, and Diebolt and a sense that they lead rather nice lives.
Chapter five is Juhlin’s history of the Champagne region, from the Romans to Dom Perignon (“only one of a number of people who developed the process” – Actually
Cool Chillin’ for those who can’t get to the foot of the Matterhorn or a grassy slope below Sacre Coeur.
it isn’t at all certain that Dom Perignon had anything at all to do with the deliberate production of sparkling wine. His interest was more in preventing bubbles) to Versailles to the French Revolution to phylloxera to the belle époque to World Wars to Hollywood’s, Grand Prix racing’s, and Hip-Hop’s embrace of Champagne. The chapter is attractively illustrated, with historic engravings, imagines from editorial and advertising graphics, movie stills and photos. Alas, Juhlin sketch of history overlooks the work of monastic communities in development of the Champagne region, the effects of secularization following the (French) Revolution (revolutionaries apparently like Champagne, too), the influence of the Russian royal family (though their demise is noted), development of production standards and debates on the current expansion of vineyards now allowed to produce Champagne.
These chapters consume but 135 pages of the tome’s 399, barely one third. The rest is composed of Juhlin’s Lists. Chapter six offers a list of the 100 Best Champagnes of All Time, a list rating vintages, another of top wines broken down by time period, yet another listing the 100 Champagnes You Should Try Before You Die. The lists are genuinely entertaining reading, showcasing Juhlin’s strengths as a taster and connoisseur.
One marvels at the wines the man has tasted, dating back to first half of the 19th century through the great vintages of the 20th and 21st, and his tasting notes are as evocative of the wine in front of him as well as the appreciation Juhlin has for the opportunity to do so. In addition
Though Charles Heidsieck’s Blanc de Millennaires 1995 earns a mere 94 points from Juhlin, it ranks among my great favorites. (Photo credit: Benjamin Henon)
to his comments, Juhlin scores his wines, using his version of a 100 point scale. I say “his version,” since for Juhlin, 50 points marks an average wine, not spoiled, drinkable if one must, but without enthusiasm. In contrast, wines scored 50 points by every major wine publication would probably be best used as drain cleaner. Critics of the 100 point scale often take issue with its appearance of scientific accuracy. 100 points being perfect, 99, slightly less so, etc. The idea that there is a quantifiable sensory difference between a wine scoring 93 points versus one scoring 94 might legitimately be met with skepticism. What then is one to make of Juhlin’s fractional scoring: 99.9 points for 1938 Krug (his number 2 wine), 98.6 points for 1969 Jacquesson Dégourgement Tardif (no. 29), 98.5 points for 1966 Bollinger (no. 35 – five wines, nos. 29-33 earned 98.6 points)? To be fair, all the decimal points are used only in his Top 100 list and not later (in Chapter seven) in his Producers and Their Wines section. But there is unsettling about the implication of scientific precision when talking about what are essentially fantasy wines. Speaking of fantasy, Juhlin’s Platonic ideal of Champagne is realized in a bottle of 1928 Pol Roger Grauves, his top wine at 100 points.
Chapter seven is devoted to a comprehensive, if not complete, list of producers and Juhlin’s scores for their wines, 8000 in all. It’s a terrific compilation, perhaps the most useful feature of the book. Juhlin provides background information for each estate listed as well as contact information. Especially helpful is information varietal blends for nearly every wine rated. Again, Juhlin rates his wines on a 100 point scale, but he provides two ratings. First (in parentheses) is a wine’s latest score. Second is a wine’s potential score some time in the undetermined future. One wishes for a crystal ball to figure out when that time will come, but, well…
A Scent of Champagne is a book for casual enthusiasts of Champagne, or, perhaps, enthusiasts of the Champagne lifestyle. It is full of beautiful pictures and would certainly look good on many a coffee table. Those who actually read it could get swept away with by Juhlin description of the tastings he has organized and dream of the wines he has tasted. That said, the industry professional interested in learning something concrete about Champagne won’t derive much from the book. There are useful elements for sure (like contact information for producers and a few restaurant recommendations), but these can be found in multiple other, more comprehensive sources. Richard Juhlin is not widely known in the US (and I will admit that I didn’t know of him before), so it is difficult to assess his actual influence in the broader world of wine. But, his enthusiasm is infectious, and if it inspires one to pop a cork or two, bravo for him.
Richard Juhlin, A Scent of Champagne, Skyhorse Publishing 2013, $75