CHRISTIE’S World Encyclopaedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine: Tom Stevenson & Essi Avellan MW

Bloomsbury Absolute, 4th Edition 2019

If there is one ‘big book’ on Champagne, this is it. Many will be unable to pick it up with one hand with the slip case alone weighing as much as some paperbacks. That said, only just less than one third of the tome, the front bit, is on Champagne, with the rest on other world fizz which we ignore here. It’s largely the magnificent work of Essi Avellan MW, although Tom Stevenson was the original author of the first edition – he signed my copy of it at Christie’s London in October 1998 with the wish: ‘Here’s to fizzical education!’ The actual title lacks the necessary ampersand separating Champagne from (all other) sparkling wines which is a strange ambiguity as you see in the pic, although I have added one to the title of this piece. A typo? Or a deliberate effort by the publisher to suggest it’s all about Champagne or that all fizz from wherever is Champagne? Surely not. But the book was £200 in 2020 and on Amazon now a used copy is over £1200, so you pay for the puzzle in the title.

Stevenson’s fingerprints are rightfully still all over this major reference work. Maybe better to say large rubber stamp, as the first chapter is a historical essay riding Stevenson’s favourite hobby horse: his conviction the English invented champagne. The fragile basis of the claim and its weaknesses I set out elsewhere on this site, although it is clear enough that in the 1660s English wine merchants were sweetening imported wines in barrels which clearly had unfermented yeast in them, so as to make them fizz or fizz again if they had been fizzy before. The main point is that whoever did it first, it was Champagne which emerged as the world’s most successful wine region. It’s irrelevant for the English to crow they made Champagne Bottle Number One when the subsequent several billion were French, from Champagne and having the last laugh. Even if we accept the first to do a second fermentation were the English, one is tempted to say: So what?

But we digress. The opening chapters here by Stevenson and Avellan are probably still the best detailed explanation of the Champagne world to intelligent and interested readers. There is a big puff from Stevenson and Avellan to promote their annual ‘Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships’ competition, judged almost solely by themselves, a competition which undoubtedly recognises excellence largely amongst the big brand houses but unfortunately attracts few entries from ‘grower’ champagnes which are now such a growing presence (oops!) in the market The rest of the Champagne section is a canter through the leading producers of champagne – the famous ‘houses’ and the ‘grower’ estates and of course the major coops.

The best sections for information are the expanded profiles on well-known big houses and leading single estates (the so-called ‘grandes marques) and their prestige cuvées, a true goldmine. The listings and profiles score producers out of 100. But over 30%, over 140 producers out of the 450-odd profiles, have no overall rating, a bit of a damp squib when you have forked out for a pricey book. And the anomalous predelictions of very pronounced and ideosyncratic preferences of these two fizz experts become clear when bizarrely Selosse is deliberately not given a score as the wines are too inconsistent and oxidised for Stevenson and Avellan. The most well-known big houses are massively preferred to the most well-known leading domaines or single estates whose wines now sell for the same prices as the grandes marques. The average rating for Deutz, Bollinger, Dom Perignon, Charles Heidsieck, Henriot, Krug, Pol Roger, Ruinart, Rare and Taittinger is some 97/100. The average for Agrapart, Bereche, Egly-Ouriet, Gimonnet, Jacquesson, Larmandier-Bernier, Lassaigne, Pierre Péters, Eric Rodez, Savart, Ulysse Colin and Vilmart is 89/100, very definitely bringing up the rear when the majority of Champagne connoisseurs would have them securely alongside.

All the more reason for consulting this book to check for yourself how these scores are generated in the profiles, even if it is out of reach to the average book-buyer and of course, like all wine referecnce books, increasingly out of date by the month.