A sip of Champagne in 1996 changed Peter Liem's life. At the San Francisco wine store where he worked, he was captivated by the 1979 Salon, which unlike most of the region's sparkling wines was made from grapes that came from a single village, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. That distinguished the Salon from most Champagnes, which are blended from wines of several grape varieties and a range of vintages.
The next year, Liem made his first trip to Champagne to visit producers, and a decade later, he moved to Dizy, a tiny town near the Marne River, to immerse himself in the region. In 2009, he launched the website ChampagneGuide.net and has become one of the world's leading experts on Champagne.
Liem began studying the region as its producers started to pay far greater attention to individual vineyards and how grapes are grown there, an emphasis evident in his new book, Champagne: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers and Terroirs of the Region, which includes very detailed maps.
That would be typical for great wine regions like Burgundy and Barolo, but Champagne has traditionally been focused on the blending that cellar masters at large houses such as Dom Perignon and Krug use to create their distinctive styles.
Blending remains an essential part of making Champagne, whose winemakers centuries ago started hiding the defects of their wines by blending them and adding sugar so they would become effervescent.
Even today, Liem writes, "Champagne is not Burgundy. Its soil is not as diverse, nor its climate as accommodating. Certain vineyards in Champagne have the capacity to create marvelous and complex wines," he writes, but "not all parcels in Champagne are able to produce a wine that's complete enough to stand on its own."
He's an ardent student of blending and begins his narrative with a visit to Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, the chef de cave (head winemaker) at Louis Roederer, who tells Liem that he works with grapes from 410 different parcels. Liem loves Krug's Grand Cuvée, which "expresses a multifaceted, encompassing experience, leveraging its components to create something larger than each of them represents individually."
But Liem champions the smaller producers who are more likely to stake their reputations on wines made from a single vineyard or a single vintage or both. And he remains engaged by his subject. At an October dinner to celebrate the publication of his book, among the wines he poured was one made by Laurent Bénard, whom Liem met only after he had finished writing his work.
"Champagne: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region," is published by Ten Speed Press and sold by Random House LLC.