Wednesday, May 18, 2011

As Close as You Can Get to Champagne – Claude Thibaut and his Virginia Thibaut Janisson Sparklers at screwtop Wine Bar, USA

Pictures: Christian G.E.Schiller with Claude Thibaut and the Thibaut-Janisson Sparklers from Virginia

What a delight to meet Claude Thibaut at screwtop wine bar in Arlington. Claude Thibaut is winemaker/co-owner at Thibaut-Janisson, a small producer of ultra-premium sparkling wine in Charlottesville, Virginia. Their flagship sparkler NV Thibaut-Janisson Chardonnay, Brut is arguably the best sparkler produced in the US East Coast and is as close as you get to (French) Champagne outside of France (in terms of quality). No wonder, that the NV Thibaut-Janisson Chardonnay, Brut was served at President Obama’s first State Dinner in November 2009 and, has become a darling of the Washington DC restaurant scene. I have also written about Thibaut-Janisson here and here.

Some Sparkling Wine Basics

Sparkling wine is wine that contains carbon dioxide, which makes it fizzy, when you open the bottle. The French monk Dom Perignon is credited with having invented sparkling wine.

The production of a sparkling wine is essentially a two-step operation. The first step is the production of a still wine - not different from any other still wine. Then, in the second step, you have to get the carbon dioxide in the bottle. There are 3 methods: The carbon dioxide may result from (1) a second fermentation in a bottle (méthode champenoise), the most sophisticated and costly method use for ultra-premium sparklers, (2) a second fermentation in a large tank that can withstand the pressures involved (Charmat process), the typical method used for good quality sparklers, and (3) an injection of carbon dioxide, the method used for cheap mass sparklers.

The most sophisticated and expensive is the méthode champenoise: The introduction of yeast and sugar triggers a second fermentation in the bottle that the wine will eventually be sold in. If you leave it at that, you will have a sparkler made in the methode ancestral. The appearance of the sparkling wine will be marred by lees, the sediment of dead yeast cells that are still in the bottle. Until Anton Mueller, the German cellar master of Veuve Clicquot, invented with Veuve Clicquot the system of remuage (riddling), it was necessary to either decant the sparkling wine before serving it or to leave it in the glass for some time so the sediment could settle before drinking the Champagne.

Mueller’s remuage technique revolutionized sparkling wine drinking and remains a key elemement in the méthode champenoise production of sparkling wine until today. The system centers around wooden racks into which the bottles are placed neck first at an angle of 45 degrees. Each day the bottles are turned and tilted so that the bottle points further downwards with each day, the process gradually bringing all the sediment into the neck right behind the cork. The sediment is then frozen to form a "plug" which is then being removed (dégorgement).

Pictures: Claude Thibaut and Wendy Buckley at screwtop Wine Bar

After adjusting the level of fill and setting the sweetness, the bottle is corked, caged and labeled; the sparkler is clear --- without any sediment.

Importantly, the amount of sugar added after degorgement determines the sweetness level of the sparkler. Most Champagnes are brut, i.e. with no or very little sweetness.

The Charmat method is much simpler and more cost effective as the second fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks that are pressurized. The process of carbon injection is the most basic one as it does not involve a secondary fermentation but rather injecting carbon dioxide gas directly into the wine. This method is generally only used in the cheapest sparkling wines.

The classic sparkler of course is Champagne, produced according to certain rules in the Champagne region of France. Other sparkling wines in France are referred to as Crémant. The grapes used are generally Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and the production method is the secondary fermentation in the bottle.

Sparkling wines are made throughout Italy. Though Franciacorta wines are made according to the traditional method, most Italian sparkling wines, in particular Asti and Prosecco, are made with the Charmat method.

The majority of Sekt – the German term for sparkling wine – is made by the Charmat method while the premium Sekts are being made according to the méthode traditionnelle. German production of sparkling wines dates back to the early 1800s, when G. C. Kessler & Co. was founded by Georg Christian Kessler, who had previously worked at the Champagne House Veuve Clicquot. Also, many (French) Champagne Houses have German origins, such as Bollinger, Mumm, Taitinger.

Austria's history of producing sparkling wine dates back to the Austro-Hungarian empire. The first Austrian producer of sparkling wine was the German Robert Alwin Schlumberger, who had worked in the Champagne House Ruinart and fallen in love with an Austrian, before he moved to Vienna in 1842 and started to produce premium sparkling wines.

Production of premium sparklers in England – were vine growing conditions are not that different from the Champagne region - started in the 1960s. Today, there are over 100 producers of sparkling wines.

The United States is an important producer of sparkling wine and has agreed to no longer call its sparklers Champagne, although there is a grandfathering clause. In the US, the history of producing quality sparkling wine goes back to the Korbel brothers, who immigrated from Bohemia on the 1850s. The last decades of the 1900s have seen a wave of foreign investments from some of France’s most prominent Champagne Houses, including Moët et Chandon, Louis Roederer and Taittinger.


Thibaut-Janisson is a new French-French joint venture of the production of ultra-premium sparkling wine in Virginia, owned by Claude Thibaut and Manuel Janisson. Claude is also the winemaker, while Manuel is producer of Grower-Champagne in France. Output currently is around 2500 cases. The NV Thibaut-Janisson Chardonnay, Brut was served at President Obama’s first State Dinner (in 2009), which gave the Thibaut-Janisson sparkler a nation-wide audience.

Claude Thibaut

Born and raised in the Champagne, this worldly winemaker, after having studied oenology in Reims, left his family’s vineyard in France to spend years creating well-known sparklers in Australia (3 years) and California (7 years). Claude Thibaut has worked at the Kendall-Jackson, Jordan and Iron Horse wineries in California as well as Champagne Veuve Devaux, Bar sur Seine, France and Yarra Bank, Victoria, Australia. Claude is the original winemaker for the popular J sparkling wine from California

In 2003, Claude moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, joining the Kluge Estate (which was recently bought by Donald Trump) as a consultant to spearhead the creation of a sparkling wine. Two years later, in 2005, he started his own label – Thibaut- Janisson - in partnership with Frenchman and friend Manuel Janisson, producer of the Champagne Janisson & Fils. Right from the beginning the objective was to produce ulta-premium sparkling wines from Virginia grapes.

The first sparkler was released in November 2007. Since then, the Thibaut-Janisson sparklers have gained the reputation for being American sparklers that are as close as you can get to their cousins from Champagne.

What Claude Thibaut Poured

Claude poured 4 sparklers, 2 Thibaut-Janisson from Virginia and 2 Janisson & Fils from Champagne

NV, Thibaut-Janisson, Chardonnay, Brut, Monticello

This is their flagship sparkler, 100% Chardonnay, aged for 3 years. This wine is a perfect combination of French talent and Virginia terroir. The nose is apples, pears, and mushrooms; the palate is citrus, green apples, pears and nectarines, with a belt of tangy acidity and a convincing finish.

Picture: Thibaut-Janisson Virginia Sparklers

“Why is it 100% Chardonnay and not a blend of Chardoannay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier” I asked Claude. “Because of the Virginia terroir and climate, there is Pinot Noir produced here” said Claude.

NV, Thibaut-Janisson, Virginia Fizz, Chardonnay, Brut, Virginia

The Virginia Fizz is a 100% Chardonnay sparkler that aged for only about 1.5 years. It is fruitier, creamier, less yeasty than the NV, Thibaut-Janisson, Chardonnay, Brut, Monticello. It is also slightly sweeter.

“I choose grapes that are little riper and have a little bit less acid than the grapes I choose for Thibaut-Janisson,” Claude said. Also, the pressure of the Fizz is a bit lower. “I put less sugar in the bottles for the second fermentation, so less pressure develops” Claude said.

Fully sparkling wines are generally sold with 5 to 6 atmospheres of pressure in the bottle. Semi-sparkling wines are defined as those with between 1 and 2.5 atmospheres of pressures and include Italian frizzante and French pétillant wines. The amount of pressure in the wine is determined by the amount of sugar added for the secondary fermentation with more sugar producing increased amount of carbon dioxide gas and thus pressure in the wine.

NV Janisson Brut Tradition, Verzenay, Champagne

NV Janisson Brut Rose, Verzenay, Champagne

The Janisson Family winery started in 1920’s with Manuel Janisson’s grandfather vision to produce his own wines from the vines that he grew in Verzenay, France. Starting with small acreage and buying fruit from his neighbors’ he vision and labor produced a signature style, which stands today as Champagne Janisson & Fils Tradition.

Picture: Champagnes Janisson & Fils

Manuel grew up within the winery and was tutored in all facets of the operation, from vineyard management, winemaking, negotiating for grapes, to selling and delivering of the Champagnes the winery produced. In 2005, he ventured out to produce ultra-premium sparklers in Virginia, while he continues to produce Champagne in France.

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German Wine Makers in the World: The Korbel Brothers from Bohemia Introduced "Champagne" to the US

German Wine Makers in the World: Anton Mueller Invented the Remuage Technique Revolutionizing Sparkling Wine Drinking, 1800s, France

German Wine Makers in the World: Eduard Werle --- Owner of the Veuve Cliquot Champagne house (France)

German Wine Makers in the World: Robert Alwin Schlumberger--the Father of Austrian Sekt (Austria)

1 comment:

  1. Champagne has been the most preferred drink since centuries and is regarded as a mark of prominence and glory to this day. It is a perfect beverage for New Year and Christmas and is often enjoyed at high end parties and celebrations. Personalised champagne bottles exhibit a sense of elegance and splendour.