Richard JuhlinWorld’s #1 Champagne Expert | 0 Comments
AN INTERVIEW WITH THE MASTER OF BUBBLY
Known as the ‘King of Champagne’, Swedish native Richard Juhlin (pronounced Rick-arrd Yuh-lean – a fact I unfortunately learned post-interview) is the world’s foremost champagne connoisseur. He has scribed six books about France’s famed effervescent wine, tasted over 8,000 varieties – holding the world record – and holds the rank of Chevalier under the esteemed French Mérite agricole.
RJ (as he is often referred to in writing) has even designed his own glassware, with a specific champagne glass tweaked to capture the full aromatic spectrum and fizzing vivacity of each bubbling beverage. He continues to travel the world, campaigning the virtues of the world’s most celebrated, celebratory drink and captivating many with his sparkling personality. Vastly knowledgeable, completely passionate, yet remarkably down-to-earth, Richard manages to maintain that artful balance between hard work, play and self. He agreed – to the delight of managing editor Amy Morison – to an interview with EDE ONLINE to discuss how his favourite drink has become his personal legacy.
How is your personality reflected in your line of work?
Well, my sensitivity to smell and taste plays an obvious role. I knew from an early age that I could identify certain smells much better than my peers. This ability to pinpoint distinct aromas and flavours launched me into my current career. I remember back when I was in my teens and my friends were starting to drink alcohol, that I was so much more sensitive to the tastes. I wasn’t drinking alcohol – like my friends were – for the effect, but more to experience the different flavour profiles. I remember my first sparkling wine, which was a Spanish cava, and the distinct impression the bubbles and taste had on me. From that point I grew curious about champagne and started to research that a bit more, but very few champagnes were available on the shelf in Sweden at that point. By the time I visited Reims in my early 20s, I knew I was in love with champagne and had developed a real thirst to learn more about it.
My desire for knowledge was fuelled even further when I realized that information was so hard to find – I had gone through wine books for details about champagne producers but found there was very little written on the subject. And the wine books that did include a small section about champagne mostly talked about it in the context of a celebratory drink, and didn’t discuss the different types of champagnes and their tasting characteristics.
Who was/is your mentor?
I don’t really have one. When I started researching in depth about champagne, there wasn’t a specific champagne expert that I could refer to. There were certain wine authors who had written in more detail about champagne than others though – I guess you could say that they unknowingly acted as my mentors. One of those authors, Tom Stevenson, is now one of my good friends.
Describe your idea of the perfect champagne experience.
The Krug 38 and 1928 Pol Roger Grauves. They are vastly different champagnes but each offer – what I would consider – a perfect champagne experience. The deep-coloured Krug, has a creamy, very rich, full, velvety elegance to it. You get notes of dried fruits, hazelnuts, gingerbread, nougat, honey, almonds, citrus fruits. It’s a classic gastronomic champagne. It has a dark, powerful intensity. While the 1928 Pol Roger is made in a little place called Grauves. It is a pure chardonnay with lime, liliacs, daffodils, linen blossom and orange blossom notes. It’s exactly like going into a spring garden; it has the strongest refined early morning perfume you could ever experience. It’s almost green in colour and is very fizzy; very refreshing. It’s also got this extremely incredible length – it’s quite unreal in its structure but never heavy and impressive in the same way that the Krug is.
Can you give some recommendations of good champagne/food pairings?
Both the two champagnes I mentioned give great opportunities for pairing, even though you’d seldom have those particular ones! The very dark, powerful Krug is a more obvious gastronomic champagne choice for main, creamy dishes, while the aperitif-style of the Pol Roger offers wonderful opportunities for pairing with light starters.
When I started tasting champagnes I wasn’t so adventurous when it came to food pairing. I paired with obvious dishes such as shellfish or fish appetizers, but as soon as I moved onto a main course, I would progress to drinking red wine. But with more pairing dinners I soon realized that there are so many great combinations through the course of a meal that work well with champagne. Especially now with Michelin star restaurants showcasing and experimenting with a huge array of different tastes. Champagne is often the perfect choice for pairing because it is high in acidity and is effervescent. It has that spectrum of taste that allows for extreme differences (again, you can compare the Krug and Pol Roger). I would say nine out of 10 chefs would agree that champagne is the choice wine for food /wine combinations because it can exhibit such big extremes.
I just had a tasting recently, starting with chardonnay-based youthful champagnes, which have higher acidity. We combined these with shellfish and caviar-based courses, but also then vegetables and fresh salads. In fact we had one with asparagus – and people say you cannot pair wine with asparagus – but it works perfectly with these young champagnes. For mains we went with a sole – a fish with a creamy sauce – and moved to medium-body champagnes with more pinot noir and chardonnay blends. Then during the final tasting steps we tried Iberico and parma hams and mushrooms – for these you must be drinking 100% pinot noir champagnes. You can even move onto cheese with these, especially the oak barrelled pinot noirs. The one mistake people often make is to continue these heavy, dry champagnes with dessert. This will never create a good combination – it is much better to have a different wine altogether for dessert.
May I also say that Asian cooking offers a lot of fabulous food pairing opportunities. In fact, one of the best cuisines for pairing is Japanese. Especially sashimi and sushi because they are not too strong in flavour, are very refined in their taste and are also seafood-oriented. The stronger the flavours, the less chance the pairing will work. A lot of Asian cooking is great for pairing except for spicy dishes or those with extreme, powerful flavours.
How does the design of the Juhlin glass affect the taste of champagne? How does this differ from other wine glasses?
It’s interesting, when I went to London recently for the blind tasting of my glass collection, many of the guests were saying ‘this is genius’ [about the champagne glass]. But for me it just seemed logical to design a better glass and I’m surprised nobody has done it before. Since my primary interest is in champagne, it is of course important to use the best tools or equipment for tasting – it is what you would do in any other job. And it was obvious to me that none of the glassware was doing justice to the aromas and flavours of any given champagne. Historically, there are two types of glasses, neither of which work well. One is the too straight and too narrow flute, which is great for bubbles but provides no aromatic benefit. The other is the traditional Marie Antoinette flute, which is flat-surfaced, creating too wide an opening so that it loses both its aroma and effervescence quickly.
So for some 10 years I have been searching for the perfect glass. I decided to find the best out there and then come up with a new design. So I picked out one Austrian, one French and one German glass and sat down with my sister – who is an architect – and started describing my ideas. She would draw them, show me, I would comment and then she would re-draw and so on. Through the process we eventually came up with three prototypes. At this point I approached Reijmyre, a small Swedish glassmaker who hand-make their glasses – actually they are one of the few still creating mouth-blown glassware. While they are very small company – so don’t have the capacity to make huge quantities – their refined, high quality craftsmanship was very suited to what I wanted to do. I gave them the prototypes and they produced three glasses, which I then tested in a series of blind tasting experiments. I think we trialled the first three five different times against the other glasses I had bought and a clear winner emerged. This glass was one of my three prototypes – and this shape formed the glass that we use today.
After finding this one shape, it was just a matter of refining it, making the glass thinner and ensuring the perfect connection with temperature and so on. I cannot explain exactly why this shape works the best but if you compare it with the best of Riedel glasses as a reference you will definitely find that it captures every detail in a more intense way. You will experience more creaminess in my glass at the edge of the glass. You will also experience stronger fruitiness in the middle – importantly you can really get your nose down to smell all the aromas properly.
After creating the champagne glass I went on to design white, red and dessert glasses, all are which are based on the same philosophy – they are designed to create an optimal nose for the wine. This may not be so practical some times (for the dishwasher or shelf) but the wine will taste better! My glasses have been performing very well during the blind tastings, not just the champagne glass, but all the glasses. I am very happy with the results.
Of course there are glassmakers that make different glasses for varieties of white and red, but I am of the philosophy that you need at least one main reference point to stick to when tasting. If you are using the same tools, regardless of the environment where you are drinking the wine, it will be easier for you to grade them. Not to mention that regular people don’t want 100 or so glasses on their shelf! Around 10-12 types is already enough.
How has the drinking culture of champagne evolved in the past decade?
The major difference in the champagne drinking culture is people are much more knowledgeable about the various types there are now; they are not limiting themselves to just five or so brands that are dominating the market. This is providing more marketable opportunities to decent, smaller growers, who are using more and more biodynamic and ecological classifications. They are producing champagnes which are strong in acidity and have a different, non-traditional style.
Meanwhile the bigger brands are focusing more on late releases. So we are seeing lighter, fresher, drier champagnes and also a larger consumption of rose, which is being led by the clubs and romantic restaurant sector.
One trend that I do not agree with, and think is going too far, is the trend toward drier champagnes. Consumers are mistaken to think that serious champagne drinkers opt only for dry champagnes. It is perfect for champagne to have just the right amount of sugar, such as 7,9 or 10 grams of sugar per litre.
But the demand now is for very dry or even zero sugar (brut zero) champagnes. Sugar not only gives champagne sweetness but it gives it length, providing a chemical reaction that gives it a broader and more interesting aromatic spectrum. While producers are supplying to this trend, real winemakers are reluctant to do it, knowing that it is not the optimal way to enjoy champagne. If you put this type of champagne into blind tastings it will seldom perform well.
What is the next step for you in your champagne career?
My focus is on starting more champagne bars. We already have a number in Scandinavia and I’m looking towards other regions. Places that have the right feel – I definitely see a future in cities such as Hong Kong, Shanghai and New York. The primary concept of these bars is that they exclusively use my glasses and offer at least 35 different champagnes by the glass. So it will be a combination of excellent knowledge about the champagnes – each of which are carefully selected – the right vessels to drink champagne in, and a great location. The bars will not only be a place for connoisseurs to congregate but for friends who want to enjoy a philosophical conversation.
Can you name five items that you always keep in your fridge at home?
Champagne. Milk. Cream. Butter. Eggs. Very boring but true!
Besides writing and talking about champagne, what are your interests or hobbies?
I’ve been doing some other things that are work-related but not to champagne, such as a TV series in Norway – the title of it basically translates to “the smell edition” – which is a programme that focuses on the different terroir of the area and how you can identify the origin of produce through smell. I was travelling with chefs, going to remote places in Norway and basically seeking out the best fish, best potatoes, etc etc and looking at the difference in tastes between areas. The most interesting aspect of the programme though was the focus on the two ‘forgotten’ senses – taste and smell. Especially smell. It occurred to me that you can really use one’s sense of smell to orientate yourself through life. During the series I started to identify people from certain towns through smell – through blind sniffing – and was even asked to smell couples to see if they were a good chemical match. I know it sounds funny, and yes we certainly filmed it with a sense of humour, but the results were very interesting.
I basically came this far in my professional champagne career because of this acute, or photograph sense of smell. And this is an area that I’d like to explore more. Actually, in my next book which is about 8000 different champagnes, the title is going to be ‘The Scent of Champagne’ and it is more philosophical about the use of smell. Historically we were more a part of nature and – like monkeys and other animals – relied on our senses more to survive, especially smell. As we have evolved, we have lost a lot of our skills and this comes from not encouraging our children to describe what they smell and taste but rather what they see. We need to try and get back to those roots and natural abilities.
But besides these other interests, I have many hobbies. I’m a big sports fan. I used to play football a lot when I was younger. I watch all the champion leagues religiously and during a big game season, such as the European Cup, I do not schedule any work functions around that time. I put it in the calendar in advance! I also keep fit and enjoy setting personal fitness goals. This year I am turning 50 and one of my goals is to break the record for the fastest 60 metre sprint in my age group. I have to do these things you know, to contrast all the drinking and eating that I do!
I also have plenty of cultural interests – my fiancée is an actress so we enjoy a lot of cinema together. I love nature. Going for walks and sitting in beautiful places is important. I need that space and time in nature to balance out an otherwise busy lifestyle.
The green/organic lifestyle: how important is it to you personally and to the champagne industry?
I think for the wine industry there have been some great developments with the green trend. There were certainly some awful things happening in the wine environment during the 60s and 70s, to the extent where people were drinking almost poisonous wines. But I think that on a global scale, the champagne industry – or winegrowing used to produce champagne – isn’t making a significant dent. I think you see more damage from products that we are eating, rather than from vineries. The most dangerous thing about winegrowing is the alcohol produced from it!
In terms of my personal lifestyle, I travel a lot so I don’t have the greenest footprint. I do drive a hybrid though and fortunately I have the economic resources to buy good, fresh ingredients, not cheap, mass-produced products. Even in my everyday life I eat a lot of expensive ingredients, most of which are definitely grown and packaged in what would be considered an organic way. I don’t buy specific things with an organic label but I am conscious of my environmental impact and do try to keep waste at a minimum.
What inspires you and influences your work?
Who wouldn’t be inspired by something that is teasing your senses in such a beautiful way? It’s a beautiful world. The wine-producing landscapes are gorgeous. I find that the places where great wine is made are often the most romantic and inspiring. Also the people I meet are fantastic. Most are not working when I meet them, they have been looking forward to our visit, so we can relax and enjoy good champagne and each other’s company.
I love great wine. All the smells and the tastes as well as the history and technical aspects. I think it’s magical how you can identify a certain wine and winemaker from another even though the vineyards may only be a few hundred metres apart.
Having said that, I do have a lot of social work-related commitments and definitely need some scheduled time alone. I enjoy being out in nature, listening to the sounds in a natural environment, taking the time to breathe for a few days. It’s important to have some distance from your work in order to keep your passion going, this allows you to see things from different angles and perspectives. Sometimes it’s good to turn off the phone, watch some football with a glass of wine and a burger. Some home time normalcy. It’s necessary.
How did you make the transition from a champagne enthusiast to a world-leading expert?
It seemed like a natural transition. I didn’t necessarily think about becoming an expert or was aiming for that [when I started champagne tasting], but I would say the process happened in an organic way. I am actually a sports teacher by training – that was my job before champagne became a full-time profession – and I still have a lot of interest in this area. But I always knew that I had this special gift to recognize certain smells and aromas. And it was the harnessing of this gift – combined with my passion for champagne – that directed me into a professional role. At the time when I started to catalogue and describe the various champagnes that I was tasting, there was no-one else doing this to the same detail. It wasn’t like with other types of wine, where you have many seasoned experts. So that also made a big difference in terms of me deciding on choosing this as a full-time occupation.
Who in the world would you most like to share a glass of champagne with?
Well, I’ve met a lot of famous people but I would love to sit down with a football player like Cristiano Ronaldo. You know, offer him a champagne, give him a glimpse of my world and vice versa – that would simply be wonderful.
What advice would you give to your younger self if you could?
I have to say I’m quite satisfied with the way I have been doing things. I managed to figure out the key points in my life early. I think I would say to myself ‘thank you Richard for recognizing your gift’ and ‘keep doing what you’re doing’. I suppose I would emphasize the fact that life is short and so getting the most out of it is very important. Don’t do anything that doesn’t feel good or right.
Savour the enjoyable moments – they could be slow or intense. Many people these days say ‘just enjoy the moment and don’t worry about the future’ I agree to some extent, yes, enjoy each moment, but I also believe that our lives are enriched by dreaming, by making plans. I love enjoying a nice bottle of champagne out with friends and then having that memory. When you bring up that memory, for example, ‘remember when we enjoyed that 1928 Pol Roger while we were in Venice’ and everyone agrees how lovely that time was, it is also good to make another plan to do something new and different the following year. Dreaming is just as important as living and enjoying the present moment. I have friends who are afraid of going back and being nostalgic, but I am not one of those people. I’m an absolute romantic, I love the nostalgic and I love to create new dreams and plans – it’s all part of the magic of life.