Book Review: But First, Champagne, by David White

Six months ago, if you asked me what book to get if you wanted to learn more about Champagne, I would have been hard pressed to answer the question. Lucky for us, someone asked my friend and fellow wine writer and blogger David White the same question two years ago, and we now have his newly released tome But First, Champagne: A Modern Guide to the World’s Favorite Wine as a result.

While primarily two books have been penned over the years aimed at educating wine lovers about Champagne, most notably Tyson Stelzer’s Champagne Guide, and Tom Stevenson’s Champagne, both are mostly works of criticism, the latter written in 1986 and updated in 2014 as a Christie’s auction house branded guide to all kinds of sparkling wine. It seems crazy, but at least in the English language, we’ve gone all this time without a great guide to one of the best known wines of the world.

But we need drink our bubbles in ignorance no longer. White has penned a tremendously approachable and insightful introduction to Champagne that will satisfy both the basic wine enthusiast as well as the most demanding wine geek. The book is clearly written, with accessible prose, and very thoughtfully structured in a way that rewards both reading from cover to cover, as well as using the book as a reference guide. Though I must say, it remains horribly handicapped as the latter without an index, the omission of which I consider to be a massive oversight.

That, however, remains one of the few criticisms I can level at this book, which is a gem, through and through. The first 131 pages, AKA “Section One: Champagne Through the Ages” provides a wonderful history of the region and its wines, interwoven with sidebars about how Champagne is made, the finer points of sabrage, the now trendy party trick of removing the top of a Champagne bottles with a large knife, and a definitive recommendation on the proper glassware (hint: ditch the flute).

The six chapters in the book’s first section examine Champagne from many angles, painting a complex portrait of the wine, the region, and the world’s love affair with bubbles across more than two centuries. This material rewards both close reading and casual browsing, and has something to teach even the inveterate Champagne lover. Photographs by another fellow wine blogger, John Trinidad, bring the region to life visually.

The second half of the book offers an additional 132 pages of producer profiles and wine recommendations that represent an extremely well-curated cross section of the best of what Champagne has to offer these days, from the Grand Marques to the boutique grower-producers that are now grabbing so much attention.

White profiles the big houses one by one, offering credit where it is due to those such as Roederer whose excellent wines continue to improve, and then shifts gears into a regional organization of grower producers that just about every wine lover will find quite helpful.

Each of the four major sub-regions of Champagne gets its own description, stats, and then a list of “leading growers,” “growers to know,” and “iconic wines of terroir” that in White’s estimation represent the best illustration of what that region can do. While I don’t consider myself an expert, having visited the region only once, I am familiar enough with it and its wines to vouch for the quality of the producers that White has selected. Nearly all my favorite producers are represented.

These growers each get their own profiles, complete with a listing of the various wines they produce and how they are sourced and made. White stops short of offering critical notes on the wines, which would have been a final layer of helpful information, but in doing so, likely ensures this guide won’t go out of date too quickly.

Champagne has long been one of the world’s greatest wine regions, and unlike some other historically great terroirs that seem all but frozen in time, it has managed to adapt itself through something of a rebirth in the last decade, in large part thanks to pioneers such as importer Terry Theise. Tireless in his promotion of small-scale Champagne, Theise’s passion continues to have impact — apparently he played no small role in encouraging White to move forward with this project.

Champagne is still deserving of an epic tome on the order of Clive Coates’ 900-page opus on Burgundy, and I am sure one will eventually be written for those of us who can never have enough context and information about a great wine region. For now, however, But First, Champagne provides the perfect introduction to a wine we should all be drinking more often.

buy-from-tan.gifDavid White But First, Champagne: A Modern Guide to the World’s Favorite Wine, Skyhorse Publishing 2016, $21.97 (Hardcover).