Meet Tom Stevenson - The Sparkling Wine Authority

by David Furer

If anyone in the wine world hasn't heard and read of Tom Stevenson then they're missing out. Worth noting is that after a trying time interviewing a previous subject via email, I balked at doing so with Tom. He insisted, subsequently putting to rest my fear of any brevity on his part. So take a deep breath, wipe any flotsam from your eyes, pour yourself a large one, and let's go!

My brief acquaintanceship with Tom expanded in 2005 when he tapped me to contribute the section on Luxembourg to his annual Wine Report—an acclaimed guide, that received many awards before it's last issue in 2009.

Something of an abbreviated form of Wine Report has emerged in the reformation of Robert Parker's Wine Advocate sans Mssr. Parker. Might Wine Report have served partially as model for it? Has the explosion of online wine writing removed the potential for the rebirth of Wine Report or the initiation of something similar? 

I’m not going to knock the Wine Advocate, avec or sans Parker. Its success speaks for itself, and I do not see the reformation of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate as coming remotely close to replacing Wine Report. For a start, the Wine Advocate is extremely profitable and Wine Report was not, and you won’t find much about the wines of Luxembourg in the Wine Advocate either! The Wine Advocate is and always has been extremely focused about the wines it covers and decidedly wine-­note intensive, whereas Wine Report was of more interest to wine geeks who appreciated an annual snapshot of almost every winemaking area on the planet. That is what made Wine Report such a critical success, but was also its financial undoing. However, as I wrote on GuildSomm a few weeks ago, I want to resurrect Wine Report and if sales of my Champagne & Sparkling Wine Guide 2015 (see
here), which I am testing as an Amazon­-only publication, go well, this could be the way forward for that particular title.

One of your more recent forays has been working with Master of Wine Essi Avellan and Dr. Tony Jordan in the annual Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships. With the subject covered adequately by Decanter previously by you and by other media and professional outlets around the world, was the decision to develop this purely monetary or was there a wheel that needed to be reinvented?

I have Decanter to thank for making the Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships a reality. It was something I had been thinking about for many years, but I was happy at Decanter (DWWA) as the chair of both Champagne and Alsace panels, and as a chair I was contractually prevented from launching any UK­-based wine competition or even judging at another UK­-based competition. Judges are free to do what they like, but chairs are not and that was and is fair enough. I was concerned by the judging of other sparkling wines at the DWWA and had even suggested a Champagne & Sparkling Wine panel, but the judging of medals is strictly terroir­-based and I respect that (indeed, I copied that in my own competition). After chairing two DWWA panels for the first nine years, I was looking forward to 10th year, but I was told they wanted to start rotating some of the chairs (if you look at the chairs for 2012 you will see a number of changes) and as I held two chairs, they asked me to concentrate on building up the entries for the Alsace panel. Had they asked me to keep the Champagne panel and hand over Alsace, I might still be a chair at the DWWA, but since that was not the way it went down, it opened up this marvelous opportunity to set up the Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships.

You infer that the subject was adequately covered by the Decanter but I was concerned by the judging of other sparkling wines at the DWWA. I am concerned about how so many people in the wine business who are not intimately connected with Champagne or sparkling wine struggle to taste this style. Some of the best red wine tasters I know are rubbish at tasting sparkling wine and many of them are happy to admit this, claiming that the CO2 gets in the way and limits the number they can taste with any confidence. That is why I decided to team ­up with my first choice, world-class experts, Essi and Tony.

Did the wheel need reinventing? If you run a huge competition, you are restricted by the numbers. For the world’s largest, the DWWA and IWC are, each in their own way, impeccably well run. I might tweak the odd thing here or there, but they are a billion times better than any competition run on OIV rules (see here). When it comes to a smaller, niche competition, however, there are lots of elements to this particular wheel that I believe need reinventing and I have included them in my competition:

• For unique medalling consistency, every wine is evaluated by the same three judges. I have seen too many competitions where the medal received depended on whose table a wine lands.

• Three is the ideal number of judges for a panel of wine judges, especially if they are experienced, specialist tasters. Whoever believes in a panel of four with the chair having a casting vote needs their head examined.

• We judge blind, by provenance (so that the best Prosecco, for example, receives a Gold within the context of Prosecco) and like all the best competitions our score equate to Gold, Silver, Bronze, Commended, No Award, Possibly Faulty, Definitely Faulty, but our winners have to be seen to be special, so only Gold and Silver medals are considered winners. The Bronze & Commended (which alone average 55% of the wines entered into most competitions) and lower scoring wines are classified as failures.

• The percentage of wines in clear glass bottles that are light­struck to one degree or another is unacceptable. Whilst no competition can be held responsible for this phenomenon in the bottles received, I have always wondered how many light­struck bottles are the fault of the competitions when storing and sorting the bottles on trestle tables under artificial light. Studies have shown that foul­-smelling dimethyl disulfide (DMDS) takes just 60 minutes to form under natural or fluorescent light to form, when methionine, a common sulphur-­bearing amino acid is broken down by exposure to ultra­violet. Furthermore, other studies show that CO2 heightens the sensitivity to DMDS, thus sparkling wine is particularly prone. We cannot expect perfection in our first year, but from this year, or second year, we are double-bagging in black plastic all wines received in clear ­glass bottles as soon as a case is broken and one is found.

• What do you do about those wines where the fault is subliminal and judges are confronted by the effect of the fault, a scalping of the fruit for TCA or something not attractive (but not yet foul) for DMDS? Judging is blind. If it was not, a judge might realize the wine is not right. So no one asks for a second bottle and the wine is judged as it is. Maybe it knocks a potential Gold down to Bronze or a potential Silver to No Award. To resolve this, we are introducing another wheel-reinventing initiative in our second year. Someone separate from the judges will shadow the judges, working one tasting behind, comparing a second bottle of every wine that fails to make the grade (Silver medal and below for deluxe champagnes and Bronze medal and below for all other wines) with the bottle judged. Every wine where bottle variation is found will be recoded with a new number and slipped back into the judging, so that no one knows it was originally marked down and cannot refer back to the original note. This represents an enormous logistical challenge, but bottle variation is one of the unspoken problems of wine judging and having trialled this on a much smaller scale in our first year, I was determined that the CSWWC would be the first competition to do something about it.

Was the decision to develop this purely monetary? Some critics think that all wine competitions are about making pots of money and they pay judges very little. Almost everyone in the wine trade has done his or her fair share of judging for little or nothing, me included, but you cannot expect top-­flight judges to devote an entire working day, day after day, week after week, for next to nothing, and this competition employs not only top-­flight judges, it has the best in the world. This does not mean that The Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships are not profitable. Any competition has to be profitable if it is to survive, but if this competition was about making money, I shot myself in both feet when I classified Bronze and Commended wines as failures.

Not only do Bronze and Commended awards average 55% of all wines entered into most competitions, but in general, the lower the award, the greater the volume of production and the more eager its producers are to utiliize bottle ­stickers to drive the sales of those wines. There are exceptions, of course, but one of the most interesting things you learn when setting up a wine competition is just how the relatively high volume output of Bronze and Commended wines impacts upon the profitability of bottle sticker sales. So, not only do Bronze and Commended awards average 55% of all wines entered into most competitions, but the majority of those “winners” require up to a thousand times as many bottle­ stickers than most Gold or Silver medal winners.

Much has been made in recent years of the increased quantity and quality of sparkling wine, and wine overall, in your native England to the point of numerous comparisons made between some of its better sparkling wines with those of Champagne. Has this any qualitative or historic basis or is it merely PR spin?

I have been one of the biggest supporters of English sparkling wine ever since two crazy Americans purchased Nyetimber in the mid-­1980s and stubbornly demonstrated the viticultural potential of this island to a bunch of over­-cautious English farmers who were reluctant to shrug off their all-weather safety ­net of German crosses and French hybrids.

However, I am also a realist and the inescapable truth is that the world class quality of English sparkling wine has been created by a very small number of producers. There are perhaps only eight English vineyards responsible for the publicity that has been generated, of which two or three stand out as a class apart. The good news is that there are approximately eight more that have also produced some excellent sparkling wines, albeit not as consistently, thus they have the potential to step up, while there are another eight or so very interesting ventures waiting in the wings.

How to account for the recent boom of Prosecco sales in the UK and US?

Although Prosecco is so all-pervasive that it can be found on the lists of not just any Michelin starred restaurant, but 3-­star restaurants today, it initially achieved its success in the on-­trade, specifically through the bar culture, targeting the female-­dominated Pinot Grigio / Sauvignon Blanc lunch­time drinkers. This was a deliberate ploy borne of a degree of honesty that is rare in wine marketing these days. Prosecco’s brand builders did not pretend to be an alternative to but sold Prosecco as a drink rather than a wine per se. They knew their product was built on the extreme freshness of its primary aromas (actually, as amylic aromas they are definitively secondary or fermentation aromas, not primary, but primary aroma is so ingrained into Prosecco wine­speak that it is easier to go with it than try to correct... I would not even bother to mention this, but I think this site is geeky enough to get it). Prosecco is, after all, a wine that only a few months before it is consumed has whizzed around a giant, shiny tin can in less time that it took its producers to say abracadabra, secondary fermentation or Conegliano-Valdobbiadene. The Prosecco industry knew that the very last consumers they wanted to engage with were the more experienced and more knowledgeable. This has proved so successful that not only has it overtaken Champagne with sales of 307 million bottles, but the price that Prosecco sells for is far higher than it would have been had it chosen a more conventional wine­trade route. I happened to be in Conegliano-Valdobbiadene a week ago and some producers have started to extend the time on yeast in tank, to bring – they say ­a certain fullness and more complexity to the product. It is as if they are suddenly embarrassed by their own product, but as you Americans say “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” The strategy of not pretending to be Champagne has not only been they the key to Prosecco’s success, it has also been responsible for carving out a customer base with an entirely different consumer profile, most whom do not even like Champagne. They must not forget that Prosecco has to be dominated by freshness and elegance, and gently supported by the softest, finest mousse, which at such a youthful age can only be achieved by cuve close. The best hillside slopes, known as Rive, are capable of producing a great quality bottle-­fermented wine, but that should be under a different DOCG with a different variety (Pinot Bianco). Prosecco will always remain the 'cash cow'.

What are the key factors to which sommeliers should be alert in assessing, stocking, selling, and servicing sparkling wines?

Not necessarily all the key factors or indeed in the right order:

• Stock turnover.

• Never buy mature vintages that have been in distribution; always buy mature vintages that have been late-­released direct from the producer.

• Always serve by the glass from magnum.

• Without getting into which make or style of stemware be very, very careful about the choice of glass, particularly its capacity, which should veer towards the generous.

• Don’t hold the glass when pouring!

As with beer, sparkling wines' naturally occurring CO2 levels create a quandary in attempting to pair with food. Have you advice for sommeliers wishing to proffer these to discerning guests?

I do not agree that there is any particular problem in pairing a sparkling wine with food. More than 99% of the Champagne I consume is consumed at the table with food and after a lifetime’s experience that has encompassed every single style of wine from virtually every winemaking region in the world, no matter how obscure, I can confidently say that sparkling wine in general, and Champagne in particular, is the most flexible of all wines when it comes to partnering with food. There might not be a eureka moment when, for example, someone who enjoys both Sauvignon Blanc and fresh, green asparagus cooked al dente, actually has the two together, but I would say that it is very difficult to find a savory dish you cannot enjoy with Champagne. We all know that CO2 is, like acidity, good for cutting through the creaminess of a butter sauce and Champagne is ideal with turbot and shellfish, but the biggest and most useful tip is to say that for any dish a sommelier has difficulty partnering, just think of the most appropriate weight and choose a Champagne accordingly. All sommeliers these days are well aware that white wine in general is far superior to red wine with cheese. In fact red wine is terrible with all soft cheeses and not very good with most hard cheeses. Champagne goes with the lot, but has no peers with soft cheeses, particularly double and triple cream cheeses.

Other than those commonly used for quality sparkling wine production in the New World, what are a few grape varieties already planted that should be more greatly considered?

I have been impressed by what Freixenet has done with Trepat in Spain, Torres with Pais in Chile and I’m keeping an eye on Domaine Karanika’s sparkling Xinomavero in Greece, but the most impressive non-­conventional sparkling wine grape I have recently come across is Cuvage Rosé Brut from 100% Nebbiolo grapes grown in Barolo: so pale, so delicate, so fine ...

Reflecting upon his decision to promote Gewurztraminer in Asia as "the biggest mistake I ever made," the CIVA's Thierry Fritsch asserted that the basis of wine pairing in Asia must be done on flavors and structure rather than aromatics saying "Asians want to boost the impression of spices and in doing so prefer Rieslings," and disparagingly refer to Gewurztraminer 'lichee wine'. Your thoughts?

Due to cultural and dietary conditioning, the Asian palate (aka appreciation from an Asian perspective) is different, so I cannot comment through direct experience, but this was always my impression from the feedback I received from Asian countries. However, that does not make Thierry’s food pairing with Gewurztraminer wrong for western palates, although there is a big difference between the floral­-lychee style of Gewurztraminer and a truly spicy Gewurztraminer. My own personal preference is never to have any spice dominate the main ingredients of a dish.

What do you make of Alsace's new communal geographical name regulation?

Most of the “new” communal designations (was 11 in 2011, now 13) have been commercially available for decades (you can find many of them in The Wines of Alsace, which was published 22 years ago). I have mixed feelings about the varietal restrictions on a communal basis. On the one hand, I have always said that Alsace needs more focus, that not every grape variety grows everywhere equally successfully, that there are areas where the Riesling reigns supreme and others where the greatest Gewurztraminer in the world can be grown. These areas are seldom as small as a single commune and in places they overlap. I look forward to the day when these varietal heartlands come to the fore and Alsace is famous for its Riesling specialists, its Gewurztraminer specialists, its Pinot Gris specialist and, yes, when more than a couple of producers pull their collective thumb from their collective backside and show the rest of the world that they can make great Pinot Noir every bit as exciting as across the border in Baden, but I’m not sure that throwing a mere dozen or so communes into one formally recognized designation and restricting what variety may be sold under each name is the way to go. Reputations should be carved out.

With the booming production and sales of Pinot noir entrenched in many parts of the world, and the effects of climate change noticeable there, why hasn't Alsace climbed aboard in expanding its production for export?

Good question! The potential exists but apart from less than a handful of producers, Alsace has yet to find the passion for red winemaking and even that handful is held back by a lack of qualitative competition that can only be achieved when an entire industry pursues a wine style. Why Alsace has such a relatively dismal record when it comes to Pinot Noir is an old question and the old answer, its white winemaking mentality, still fits. As I wrote in “The House of Trimbach” (The World of Fine Wine, Issue 18, 2007) “The only Trimbach wine I really do not like is the Pinot Noir, but even that is consistent: I don’t like it every year! Trimbach’s Pinot Noir is traditional Alsace in style, which is betwixt and between rosé and light red wine and, worst of all, made with a white ­wine mentality. From almost any other producer I wouldn’t mind this, because no one is forcing me to buy the wine and I don’t have to drink it—but from a flagship producer such as Trimbach, it really is not good enough. Trimbach should seriously consider investing in a completely separate, but very small, red­ wine­making facility, with a barrel room (but strictly minimal oak contact), and get to grips with malolactic bacteria—albeit ensuring that the location is far enough removed from the primary wine facility not to threaten their laser-­like whites.”

Bridging the gap between what are traditionally your strongest areas of interest, as a category Crémant d'Alsace is a tough sell, languishing in both the US and UK while its still wines enjoy no lack of trade and consumer interest. How might Alsace overcome this, and how might the sommelier approach selling it?

I have a very soft spot for Alsace. I love the wines, the food, the people and the whole fairy ­tale land that is part of the package, but of all Alsace wines, the one style I have always had difficulty coming to grips with is Crémant d’Alsace. At first I wondered whether it was because I had been spoilt by Champagne and expected too much from Crémant d’Alsace, but I have since found fine and fascinating sparkling wines produced in Italy, California, Australia, New Zealand, England and many other places. Recently I have even been impressed by Cava, even though that has been a running sore with me for more than a quarter of a century. If Cava has proved one thing for me, it is that I do not have any geographical­-based prejudices. Give me the quality and I’ll sing about it, wherever it comes from.

I have tasted some fine Crémant d’Alsace, but not often and not consistently, vintage after vintage, or non­-vintage blend after non­-vintage blend. It is also one of the least-­known sparkling wines in the world outside of its own region. Who would think that Crémant d’Alsace is the largest Crémant appellation in France? Certainly not your average fizz consumer in the UK or USA. I think a lot of these wines would improve if some producers:

• Built up larger, more complex stocks of reserve wines.

• CO2 levels were reduced even further to produce a softer, silkier mousse.

• Ring­-fenced crémant vineyards and grew appropriate clones or massale selections.

• Considered hiring a world­-class specialist sparkling wine consultant.

Conspicuous in their absence from your columns and blogs of late has been the subject of US sparkling wines. When might your North American readers in particular expect this to be rectified?

I still think that Roederer Estate and Le Reve from Domaine Carneros by Taittinger are two of the greatest sparkling wines in the world, but apart from the beautiful sparkling wines (especially the exquisite rosé) from Caraccioli Cellars in Santa Lucia Highlands, where Michel Salgues consults, I am hugely disappointed by the lack of new sparkling wine talent in the USA.

Wine overboard! Other than curiosity value is there anything worth considering in aging wine underwater?

Let’s kick off with the basics: IF the temperature happens to be the same, what is the difference between aging wine in a cellar or underwater? For underwater storage there is no ingress of oxygen (even in sparkling wine with 5 or 6 atmospheres of pressure there is an ingress of air in a cellar because the pressure in the bottle is CO2 pressure, not oxygen pressure, check out Boyles Law, partial pressures et al). For 10 years or so this exclusively anaerobic aging will make diddly squat of a difference and storing at the same temperature will make no difference either (and in those areas of the sea that have the equivalent of cellar temperature, the temperature of the sea will fluctuate), but for 80 years at a constant 2 degrees Celsius (think 1907 Heidsieck & Co. Monopole), the effect is like suspended animation, whereas for 160+ years (think Veuve Clicquot 1840s), the effect is so reductive that the wine literally stinks of shit.

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By Alex Pace | | David Furer, experts, interviews, long reads, sparkling |
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