Ahead of Champagne Day 2022 this Friday, we had a chat with Sara Underdown, founder of VINE & BUBBLE magazine, Australia’s only magazine dedicated to champagne. Read the interview below.
Bonjour Sara, you’re the founder of VINE & BUBBLE magazine, Australia’s only magazine dedicated to champagne. What made you decide to publish a magazine?
I’m very passionate about telling the real story of champagne, the wine behind the allure of bubbles. Blogging was my initial foray into storytelling, but I wanted to be taken more seriously. Also, there was an opportunity to create something very specific to champagne because no one else was doing it. So I decided to publish information and news about champagne through VINE & BUBBLE via the website but also in a print copy.
It appeals to wine lovers with a particular interest in champagne. They usually have a high wine IQ and many have visited the Champagne region at some point – so they are devotees for sure. Readers also want to be taken on a journey of discovery – they’re looking for something new or interesting they haven’t heard of. I try to deliver content that cannot be found anywhere else.
Is it difficult to publish a magazine in the digital age?
Not at all. VINE & BUBBLE has found a natural audience because it’s unique in the landscape of drinks publications. There’s nothing like it in digital or print format. Australian publications typically represent Aussie wine and just a small offering of international wines to satisfy the more adventurous. VINE & BUBBLE is champagne only so it appeals to a more discerning and specific reader. It also engages more broadly with the wine industry as contributors – bringing together a network of Australia’s leading sommeliers, writers, industry representatives and educators – rather than only wine commentators and critics.
You’re qualified at WSET Level 3. Where did your champagne journey begin?
My journey began in Champagne! My husband and I visited the region as a side-trip from Paris over a decade ago. I went there as a champagne lover and left a complete devotee. From there, I have worked hard to improve my knowledge and palate and develop incredible networks. Education is the most important aspect in my journey both formal and informal. Surrounding myself with the right people provides the mentoring and focus I need to develop professionally.
What drew you to the world of champagne? What made you decide to study and work in the industry?
In my opinion, no other wine or wine region is as magical or complex as Champagne. I am always fascinated by the careful balance good champagne displays between concentration, freshness and finesse. It’s what keeps me going back for another sip! The more I experience, the more I want to know which has always inspired my curiosity to learn but also a career in champagne.
Do you have wine-making experience? Or have you worked as a sommelier?
Not at all. I am not a certified sommelier, but I don’t have to be. I specialise only in champagne and I don’t work on-premise. For me, obtaining credentials along these lines isn’t going to enhance my offering to customers. That said, I work with sommeliers all the time, providing recommendations for their wine lists and also assisting them with making industry contacts.
You have also been a finalist for several awards including the Vin de Champagne Awards in 2016 and 2018, and the Louis Roederer International Wine Writer’s Awards. The Vin de Champagne awards are uniquely Australian and are said to be awarded to the ultimate champagne brain. What does entry into these awards entail? What sort of preparation did you have to do?
The Vin de Champagne Awards are facilitated by the Comité Champagne, an industry body officially representing Champagne around the world. My understanding is they don’t run them in Australia anymore, so I was privileged to participate and become a finalists two times over. To say they are rigorous is an understatement. The first phase to get through entails a series of short essays. If you’re good enough to be shortlisted, you’ll enter a blind tasting followed by a robust interview with a judging panel.
It was good experience that helped elevate my profile and develop contacts. That said, I don’t think I needed to win in order to have a career in champagne. As I constantly say to myself “the secret to success is constancy to purpose.”
How long have you been writing about champagne? Which article led to your being a finalist in the Louis Roederer International Wine Writer’s Awards? And the Born Digital Wine Awards?
I started blogging back in 2010 (I think) simply as an outlet for my passion. I have a background in writing in communications so it was a natural marriage to bring this experience together with my love of champagne. Over the years I have had articles published within VINE & BUBBLE but also for other publications – Delicious (Australia), Gourmet Traveller WINE, Jancis Robinson and The Buyer (UK). Entering awards is important for professional development and gaining industry recognition. To be a finalists in the Louis Roederer Wine Writer’s Awards was a big deal for me and came off the back of a substantial piece I wrote on their chef de cave’s journey to organics and biodynamics. For the Born Digital Wine Awards, I was a finalist for undertaking ‘Best Interviews’.
Vine & Bubble also hosts champagne tastings and dinners. Can you tell us about what is involved behind the scenes in preparing for these? How do you access the sometimes very exclusive champagnes?
Events are important for producers to access the right audience. Mine are quite discerning and have a high ‘wine IQ’ – many are on a champagne journey and would like the opportunity to discover something new or more exclusive. Because I dedicate so much of my time to learning about champagne – and to travelling there – I provide event-goers with an authentic experience drawing on knowledge they cannot easily find elsewhere.
For me, having good relationships with champagne importers, sommeliers and restaurateurs is essential for executing my events. Having a genuine collaboration – where everyone is invested and has the customer experience as their focus – makes every event more meaningful.
Lots of work goes into researching, preparing tasting notes, working with the restaurants to develop bespoke menus that are carefully considered, promoting sales, managing customer expectations and then finally presenting each experience.
For someone who wants to explore champagnes beyond the big houses that are found everywhere, which champagne(s) would you recommend?
I think the Maisons are a good place to start in any champagne journey because they provide the stylistic architecture for the classical champagne experience. Then you can go off and explore the wonderful diversity that champagne offers, be it Maison, grower or cooperative. Exploring by provenance rather than by producer will allow you to understand terroir; for example, the Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Grande Vallée, Côte des Blancs, Sézannais or Aube.
For me, the criteria must always be that the champagne is fresh. There are plenty of good growers out there doing a wonderful job of balancing intensely concentrated fruit with a judicious hand in the cellar. Some of my favourites are Pierre Gimonnet, Domaine Vincey, Philippe Glavier, Larmandier-Bernier, René Geoffroy, Nicolas Maillart, Chartogne-Taillet, R. Pouillon, F&R Miniére and Agrapart.
What’s your ultimate champagne/food pairing?
Champagne is wonderfully gastronomic and I have had some of the very best pairings possible. If it’s a casual night at home, I cannot go past sashimi and a rosé champagne. For something more decadent, I recently experienced Burrata with candied walnuts, fennel and truffle oil with Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Blancs NV. Also, Pemberton Marron with beurre blanc and saffron sauce is mouth-watering with a pinot dominated vintage champagne or a non-vintage blend with a light touch of oak.
Some people think champagne is only for celebrations, perhaps because of the price point. What would you say to them?
Not at all. Though milestone birthdays, anniversaries of variegated kinds, and matrimonial gatherings call for champagne (and always will) it is much more than this.
Increasingly, in Australia, we have seen champagne enter every course of a meal, from entrée to dessert, because champagne is first and foremost a wine and has a gastronomic appeal. We can thank our sommeliers and restaurants for challenging our thinking and educating us!
Champagne’s freshness, salinity, complexity and texture make it wonderful fodder for us all to play with when considering what to pair with our meals.
Do you only drink champagne? Do you have a go to?
My go-to is always champagne. Having said that, I do enjoy other wines from time-to-time. I have many winemaker friends, as I live in South Australia, so it’s an education for me to spend time with them, taste and learn.
When it comes to champagne, I gravitate to Louis Roederer Collection, Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve, Chartogne-Taillet Sainte Anne and Pierre Gimonnet Cuvée Cuis any night of the week.
Why should people read VINE & BUBBLE?
Champagne lovers should buy VINE & BUBBLE if they want to be taken on a journey of discovery – if they’re looking for something new or interesting they haven’t heard of. They will discover content that cannot be found anywhere else.
Do you have any events on for Champagne Day?
No, although I will be doing an event in Sydney the day before.
We thank Sara Underdown for her time.
KEY INFO FOR VINE & BUBBLE MAGAZINE
WHAT: VINE & BUBBLE, Australia’s only dedicated Champagne magazine
WHEN: Released twice yearly (next edition being released in November 2022)
HOW MUCH: $19.95 plus shipping (when purchasing from the website)
HOW: Purchase back issues and find your local stockist via the website
VINE & BUBBLE EVENTS
You can find VINE & BUBBLE events via this link
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