Champagne: Tom Stevenson

Sotheby’s Publications. 1986

The Daddy of ‘survey’ books on Champagne, now 40 years old. So two immediate shocks – a shame it’s never been updated and why has no one attempted anything like it since? By ‘survey’ book I mean the classic in-depth and all-dancing reference work for deep enthusiasts and wine students which analyses the history, practices, sub-regions, methods and producers of a major wine region or country. There have been brief efforts to repeat at least some of this book’s scope. But most remain either superficial or lump Champagne into world sparklers or ‘France’. The fact this book puts Champagne solely centre stage and covers the full ‘survey’ ground makes it curiously unique. It’s a ghost on the hill of old Champagne books, by a true professional wine writer but hopelessly out of date and out of print, a proud, pioneering landmark. For all that, if you are a Champagne book magpie or determined to mine the many nuggets of value here, do try to get it.

The book’s organisation is not quite the classic wine book, reflecting Champagne’s tendency (at least its big ‘houses’) to see winemaking and the magic blending fingers of Chefs de Cave as the region’s golden key. Since 1986, or at least for the last 20 years, the idea of ‘terroir’, that great champagne can reflect the origin of its grapes, has jostled agasinst the big brand generic blends and is more and more reflected in so-called ‘grower’ champagne and new cuvées from big ‘houses’ with more local blends. Stevenson’s book does have a brave chapter titled ‘Terroir, but it’s a mere 14 pages of over 300 and describes soil but not sub-regional styles or exemplary producers. Chapter 4 on varieties, and viticulture must have been a tour de force in 1986, a topic hardly anyone has dared visit about Champagne since.

But expect too the familiar occasional Stevenson sounding-off with volume dial up – ‘Poppycock!’ and ‘Rubbish!’ occur testily, but with some point, on the ‘sur-lattes’ scandal which still continues today – the buying and selling of no-label bottles which go to market with the label of a different maker. There is no sign in this book of Stevenson’s later bee in the bonnet about staggered disgorgement times. But there is the strange idea that it is good, (although illegal under Champagne rules) for houses if they so wish, to add fractions of other vintages to vintage champagnes – ‘a commendable practice’.

And there is the weird idea that the ‘growers syndicat’ should make its own range of wines, a kind of ‘super co-op’ to save its future. Apparently, the danger in the 1980s was that the growers would fade and die unless they could pull a livelier cat from the bag. History has shown that consumer demand in part, as well as leading ‘grower’ innovation could create an elite of small family producers whose prices now parallel the top wines of the big brands. There are also the germs of Stevenson’s well-known scepticism about much oak use in Champagne, but in 1986, nothing of his later questionable claim that the English invented Champagne.

Maybe it’s unfair to nitpick a text made nearly 40 years ago, and we should never find opinions unwelcome if they provoke clarity in due course. For all its age, this was and is a monumental Champagne book.