Q&A with Peter Liem on Champagne

Peter Liem is an American wine writer living in the Champagne region of France.  His website ChampagneGuide.net, is a fantastic online guide to the wines and wine producers of Champagne.  He is also a senior correspondent and wine critic for Wine & Spirits magazine, and he writes about wine for various other publications as well, such as The World of Fine Wine and the San Francisco Chronicle.  Getting lost in ChampagneGuide.net is one of those things that makes for a perfect Sunday afternoon.

 

How does tasting champagne differ from still wine?

PL: The basic elements are the same, yet I’ve noticed that even many wine professionals don’t taste champagnes as meticulously as they do still wines. It’s probably true that the bubbles add an extra element, influencing the triangle of acidity, ripeness and alcohol. The acidity levels are very high as well, meaning that unless you’re accustomed to tasting things like German rieslings, it can be quite tiring on the palate to taste many champagnes at one time. More importantly, though, champagne has traditionally been an aged wine, and therefore not really about primary fruit, particularly as it undergoes its aging on its lees. That results in a markedly different tasting experience in comparison to many of today’s still wines, which are more fruit-focused than ever before.

You’re a big advocate of terroir in champage.  Since champagne is blended can you expand a bit more what this means?

PL: Terroir does not only mean single-vineyard wines. There are champagnes that express the terroir of a particular village (such as Salon), and champagnes that express the distinctive characters of even broader areas. Aubry’s champagnes, for example, have a character that is highly specific to the Petite Montagne, while Gaston Chiquet’s reflect the western corner of the Grande Vallée. Compare the wines of Benoît Lahaye, from the south of the Montagne de Reims, to those of Jean Lallement, from the north, and you’ll find an enormous difference in terroir signature. These are hardly isolated examples: you’ll find plenty of terroir-expressive champagnes in all corners of the region. The problem is that oftentimes, those who say that champagne does not express terroir are simply not familiar enough with Champenois terroirs to recognize them. In addition, a blend does not necessarily negate the influence of terroir. When handled intelligently, a blended champagne still relies as much on terroir as a single-vineyard wine does, but it uses the expression of terroir in a different way, as a component of a larger whole rather than as an end in itself. Louis Roederer is an excellent example of this: the vintage brut is always based on a high proportion of pinot noir from Verzenay and Verzy, and while this is blended with base wines from other areas of Champagne, it’s that northern Montagne character that really drives the wine. The vintage blanc de blancs combines chardonnay from Le Mesnil, Avize and Cramant, primarily, and the characters of each of these villages are used to create a harmonious whole. Each of the base wines are still important, and still heavily influenced by terroir: if that were not the case, there would be no point in separating them so carefully in the cellar.

For those that are really advanced, such as yourself, do you find that you can blind taste a champagne that is from Clos des Mesnil vs Aÿ?

PL: Champagne is certainly capable of highly individual expressions, and the more you taste, the easier these become to recognize. I wouldn’t claim to be able to correctly name a champagne every time in a blind tasting, but I’m very interested in the way that champagne expresses its terroir, and I seek out these distinctions.

What is one of your most memorable champagne experiences?

PL: I’ve been fortunate to have many over the years, some involving grand wines and others more modest ones. One of the most special moments for me was drinking a champagne from my birth year, 1973, with Jacques Diebolt of Diebolt-Vallois. It’s a wine that he has very few bottles of, and most of them are flawed due to improper storage. On one of my visits to the estate, he opened a bottle in honor of me, and it was magnificent. But what made it really special was sitting there with him and sharing the bottle over a couple of hours, talking about wine, history, old champagnes and life in general. Wine has this marvelous capacity to bring people together and create shared experience, and I think that’s what it’s really all about.

You’re Chinese American by descent and a prolific writer with a lot of really quality publications out there (The World of Fine Wine, Wine & Spirits, San Francisco Chronicle).  Your old personal blog Besotted Ramblings and other Drivel told stories of what many wine lovers would only dream to experience.  How did it all begin?

PL: I started working in the wine trade in the mid-1990s, and eventually worked in many different facets of the trade, from retail to restaurants to importing and distribution. I owned a wine bar in Portland, Oregon at one point, and I also co-authored an online magazine called the Riesling Report. Most importantly, I traveled a great deal throughout virtually all of the major (and many not-so-major) wine regions of Europe, tasting wines, talking to winegrowers and walking through vineyards. Since 2004, I’ve been writing full-time, and today I focus largely on ChampagneGuide.net, although I continue to write regularly for several other publications, including The World of Fine Wine and Wine & Spirits. I am also currently working on a book about sherry, with plans for a champagne book to follow.

You live in Champagne now.  Is there good Asian food there to fulfill your food cravings?

PL: Sadly, no, not apart from what I cook for myself. Fortunately, I am able to keep my pantry fairly well-stocked with Asian ingredients, between trips to Paris and the United States. I cook mostly Japanese and Chinese food at home, and champagne is a wonderful accompaniment to these cuisines.