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Champagne! Champagne! Conversation with A.J. Ojeda-Pons of The Lambs Club

February 7, 2017 4 comments

While some of us insist that Champagne is an everyday wine, majority treat it as a “special occasion” only. Of course, every day with the name ending in “day” is worthy of a special celebration, but jokes aside, most of us need a good reason to pop the cork on that tickling, gently foaming, playful and refreshing nectar.

Lucky for all “special occasion” folks, one such special occasion is almost upon us. What can accentuate “love and romance” better than a glass of bubbly? Yes, bring the Champagne as Valentine’s Day is only a week away!

A.J. Ojeda-Pons The Lambs Club SommTo help you celebrate and maybe even answer a question or two which I’m sure you always had, I [virtually] sat down together with A.J. Ojeda-Pons, sommelier at The Lambs Club, one of the popular New York restaurants by the Food Network’s best-dressed star and Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian. I need to mention that in addition to being a WSET Advanced Sommelier, A.J. knows a thing or two about style – in 2014, he was the official winner of the U.S. Best Dressed Somm contest by Penfolds and GQ Magazine. And the Champagne? Just take a look at the A.J.’s LinkedIn profile, which says “Drink Champagne Every Day”!

Here is what transpired in our conversation:

[TaV]: Champagne is perfectly appropriate for any celebration, however, it is most often associated with Valentine’s Day – well, after the New Year, of course. When celebrating Valentine’s Day, would you recommend Champagne as the one and only choice of dinner wine, or would you use it just as an opener and then continue with whites and reds?

[A.J.]: Ah! My motto is “Drink Champagne Every Day,” so I often have a whole meal drinking just Champagne. Besides, drinking champagne before a meal is the most civilized thing you could do.

I know that it may be hard for some people to drink bubbles throughout a meal, but if you tailor your menu choices with the champagne that you are drinking, you can have an amazing experience (Think Crudos, Oysters, Fish or Seafood Tartare, Veal, Rabbit or Fish and avoiding red sauces or rich, creamy preparations). Otherwise, if you can’t commit, plan to drink the Champagne for at least half of the dinner and then switch for your main courses. In regards to desserts, champagne could sometimes be a total clash (due to its crispness and acidity) but a nice sorbet or fruit-based dessert will do.

[TaV]: To continue the previous question, just in case you suggested to stay with Champagne all the way, can you make some recommendations for different Champagne or Sparkling wines to complement a three course meal, including dessert? I’m talking not so much about particular producer names, but more about the styles and types of the sparkling wines.

[A.J.]: I like to drink a champagne that has more complexity throughout a full meal, so in that case I would go straight to a vintage champagne, even though it is always more expensive. You will benefit from the extended period of aging, it will have more nuanced layers and complex flavors, and will make it easy to pair with different flavors in various dishes.

[TaV]: Now, let’s actually talk about names. Splitting into three price categories – under $20, $20 to $60 and my favorite, “the sky is the limit”, what are the special Champagne and sparkling wines would you recommend to our readers in each price category?

[A.J.]: For the under $20 category, you won’t find any champagne in the market, unless it is a half bottle, but for that price point you are better off selecting other sparkling wines that are made in the méthode Champenoise. There are not a lot out there, if you can find them, because generally they are not exported or their production is very limited.

For example, from Italy you could try to get Franciacorta from the Lombardy region, from producers like Berlucchi, Il Mosnel or Mirabella. From the Veneto, you could try Il Buglioni spumante, and don’t forget that the Dolomites produce great sparkling, like Castel Noarna and Endrizzi. In Spain you can find great Cava from producers like Gramona, Mestres and Naveran.

If you are really in love with French sparkling, Crémant de [Bourgogne] (Veuve Ambal, Clotilde Davenne), [Jura] (Domaine de la Renardière, Rolet Père & Fils) [Alsace] (Albert Mann, Pierre Sparr or [Limoux] (Tocques et Clochers, Paul Mas) is your answer.

In the $20-60 sweet spot, you’re going to have the majority of Champagne options, from producers like Benoit Lahaye, Laurent Perrier, Dhondt-Grellet, Andre Clouet, Ayala, Billecart-Salmon, Aubry, Deutz, Henriot… open the floodgates!

Sky is the limit… yes, always! Find the Tête de Cuvées from Billecart-Salmon (Le Clos Saint-Hilaire), Pol Roger (Sir Winston Churchill), Charles Heidsieck (Blanc de Millenaires), Krug (Clos de Mesnil) and of course, Moët & Chandon (Cuvée Dom Pérignon).

[TaV]: What do you think of Grower’s Champagne? It is often hard to find, and if you can find it, it usually comes with very little information – is Grower’s Champagne worth seeking?

[A.J.]: Grower Champagne is by far my favorite type of champagne. Yes, they are hard to find at some stores but you can actually purchase quite a few online, if your state allows. Think about it, they ?own the land, they farm it, quite often respecting nature to the T, they produce and sell their own champagne, they don’t sell the fruit to big houses or mass producers. I stock on these a lot.

There are many styles to look forward to and many small producers that just are thrilled to share their farmer love in the language of a great bottle of champagne.

The Lambs Club Mezz Bar NYC

The Club Mezz at The Lambs Club

[TaV]: Over the past few years I had a number of delicious encounters with so-called Pét Nat sparkling wines – what do you think of them? Is this a fad, or will we see more of them? Do you offer Pét Nat at your restaurant?

[A.J.]: These are fun and can be quirky, but really excellent options to explore. I don’t think they are a fad, but you will see them more often in natural wine bars. They’re versatile with food, I must say.

We carry a couple at The Lambs Club and we offer on-and-off a choice by the glass depending on the season. I like them a lot. They are approachable, easy drinking and they also have a variety of styles from different countries. My favorite from California: Birichino, New York State: Channing Daughters, and from France: Chahut et Prodigues and Taille aux Loups!

[TaV]: In your opinion, what is the ideal vessel to serve the Champagne in? Is it the ever so popular flute, or should we rather serve and drink Champagne from the standard white wine glasses?

[A.J.]: Avoid flutes like the Black Plague. They are indeed obsolete, although they are alright for Prosecco. A regular white wine glass will be much better and, in fact, many crystal/glass makers have completely changed the shape of flutes to more white wine glass-shaped. You will be able to experience a lot more of the aromas of the champagne. Great champagne deserves a great glass. I prefer larger Burgundy or Bordeaux glasses for Vintage champagne.

[TaV]: What are your most favorite Champagne producers, if you have any?

[A.J.]: I have so many that I will need an extra page (back to my motto and hashtag, #DrinkChampagneEveryDay) but, here’s a few: Dhondt-Grellet, Billecart-Salmon, Agrapart, Savart, Tarlant, Robert Moncuit, Delamotte, Krug, Guillaume Sergent, Pierre Moncuit, Besserat de Bellefon…

[TaV]: Can you share your most mesmerizing Champagne experience, or most memorable Champagne bottle you ever had?

[A.J.]: It was a Heidsieck Monopole 1945. I was working a collector’s dinner and they had brought so many incredibly old vintage champagnes, but this one was my eye opener. All I could think about was ‘drinking this back then when the war finally ended.’ Seriously.

[TaV]: Last question – do you have a favorite Champagne quote? You know, like the famous [supposedly] Napoleon’s quote “Champagne! In victory one deserves it, in defeat one needs it” – do you have one (or more) which you like the most?

[A.J.]: Yes!!! Always a current quote from the poet Paul Claudel: “In the little moment that remains to us between the crisis and the catastrophe, we may as well drink a glass of champagne.”

There you have it, my friends. Hope you will find our conversation interesting, but most importantly – you don’t have to wait for the Valentine’s Day to get some fizz on. Pop that cork already, will you? Cheers!

A Puzzle of a Hundred Pieces

December 30, 2015 7 comments
This beautiful artwork is constructed from top wine foils. Picture courtesy of Ryan Sorrellof VinoMosaic.com

This beautiful artwork is constructed from tops of wine foils. Picture courtesy of Ryan Sorrell of VinoMosaic.com

Is there a person in this world who doesn’t like puzzles? You can save the “duh” exclamation for later – I’m sure there are some people who don’t, but an absolute majority enjoys the puzzles of some sort, whether expressed in the form of words, numbers, colorful picture pieces, link chains or whatever else.

So what if I tell you that you will be given a hundred of random pieces – not just you, but a group of people will receive a hundred of totally random pieces, but they all would have to build exactly one and the same picture out of those 100 random pieces – would you like to take part in such a challenge? Do you think you would be up for it?

While you still considering if you are up for a challenge, you are probably also wondering how puzzles relate to the wine and what you are still doing reading this nonsense where you were looking for the information on the wine, plain and simple. Actually, it appears that this type of puzzle with random pieces but the same resulting picture has very direct relationship with the world of wine. Not necessarily with the whole of it, but definitely with one of the most noble parts – the Champagne.

If you ever read the story of Benedictine monk Dom Perignon, often credited with creation of Champagne (”come quickly, I am drinking the stars”), many wine historians agree that major Dom Perignon achievement is not creation of Champagne itself, but perfection of the art of blending. If you think about it, blending resembles the process of putting together puzzle pieces. And to complete the picture, take a look at the description of any of the Champagne made by so called Champagne Houses – Veuve Clicquot, Moèt and Chandon, Bollinger, Perrie-Jouiet and hundreds of others – they all talk about a “signature taste” of their Champagne House, which is painstaking maintained exactly the same through the hundreds of vintages.

While I knew about significance of blending in production of Champagne, I never understood a true scale of an effort. A month ago (almost two month by the time I was able to finish this writing), I was lucky enough to attend a first ever Vins Clairs (give a few seconds – I will explain what this is) tasting hosted by the Champagne House of Piper-Heidsieck and Terlato Imports in the US – well, it was simply first ever Vins Clairs tasting conducted outside of France. The event was led by Régis Camus, Chef de Cave and Winemaker for Piper-Heidsick. And yes, we spent time learning about puzzles.

Let me give you a brief photo report for what was happening at the event first, and then of course we will go back to puzzles. When I arrived (early, to get a seat in front), the room was ready for the tasting:

mise en place - glassesAnd the expectations started building as the carts showed up:

Vin Clairs

Piper Heidsieck Vin Clairs BottlesThis is what went into our tasting glasses:

mise en place - Vin Clairs

mise en place vin clairs ready

Bill Terlato welcomed everyone to the tasting:

Bill Terlato opens the eventAnd then we started to learn about puzzle pieces. Of course, first talked about what Champagne is – “Champagne comes only from Champagne”:

About French ChampahneAll grapes used in production of Champagne come from 320 different vineyards, which are also called CRUs. Out of those 320, only 17 have a status of Grand Crus – as they produce distinctly better grapes. Just to give you few more fun numbers – there are about 19,000 grape growers in Champagne, out of which only about 2,100 produce their own wine. There are also about 50,000 Champagne labels – which, of course, explains that it is always possible to come across a champagne bottle you never saw before.

But let’s get to our puzzle, as we still need to solve it. Every year, the grapes are harvested (just a quick reminder – there are 7 grapes allowed to be used in Champagne, but only 3 – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are really used), pressed and fermented into the still wine, same as it would be done with any other wines – with the exception of color – red grapes, such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, still produce clear juice if not kept in contact with skins, and this is what typically done in production of Champagne – unless Rosé is in the making. Once fermented, these still wines now become foundation of Champagne, known as Vins Clairs.

As common with any still wines, the year is a year is a year – every year is unique and different. If the year was great, let’s say, for Chardonnay, the Chardonnay Vins Clairs will become a Reserve wine and will rightfully occupy the place in the cellar. If the year was just okay, the wine, of course, will be used, but will not be cellared for long. If the year was terrible, the wine simply might not be produced. But it is okay – remember, we got lots of pieces to play with.

Régis Camus conducts the Vin Clairs tasting

Régis Camus (on the left) explains what does it mean to create a Champagne wine

First, we tasted through 5 different Vins Clairs – each one a component in the Piper-Heidsieck Champagne, each one with its own role. Chardonnay brings fruit aroma, citrus, minerality. In reserve wines, Chardonnay will bring more aromas. Pinot Noir provides body and structure, and it is usually main component in Piper-Heidsieck Non-Vintage Champagne. Pinot Meunier brings fresh fruit. Below are my notes, almost verbatim, as I followed explanations and tasted the wines:

2014 Chardonnay Avize – Avize village is in the center of Côtes de Blanc, and it is one of the 17 Grand Crus. Straw pale color. Beautiful nose, minerality, fresh, citrus. Clean acidity on the palate, green apple, nice acidic finish. This wine was mostly used for vintage and reserve wines, and will be a part of non-vintage champagne in 5–6 years down the road.

2014 Pinot Noir Verzy – Verzy is also one of the 17 Grand Crus. Light golden color. Interesting nose, mostly white fruit, very serious acidity, lemon/lime level, very interesting. I would have to agree on structure. In a blind tasting I would say Muscadet.

2014 Pinot Meunier Ecueil (fleshy and fruity, red grape with white juice). Light golden color. Brings in fresh fruit to the blend. White fruit on the nose. Pinot Meunier rarely used for reserve wines. Still acidity, but acidity of the fruit, more of the green apples.

2009 Chardonnay Avize very interesting color – green into golden. Beautiful minerality, classic Chablis gunflint. Delicious. Creamy, medium body, white fruit, restrained acidity, long finish. I would gladly drink this wine by itself.

2008 Pinot Noir Verzy color similar to Chardonnay – green-golden. White fruit on the nose with touch of minerality. A bit more fruit on the palate, but still extremely pronounced acidity.

After we tasted through the 5 Vins Clairs, we were asked to refresh our palates with a sip of Pinot Meunier, and the final wine #6 was poured. Boy, what difference was that – mind boggling, starting from the color:

Vin Clairs and Piper-Heidsieck 2014 Assemblage

2014 Assemblage Piper-Heidsieck is to the right

2014 Assemblage Piper-Heidsieck – blend of 2014 (90%) and reserve wines (10%) – darkest color of all, beautiful nose with yeastiness, and fresh bread, good minerality. One would never guess that you can get that from individual wines. Color came from the fact that the wine was not stabilized yet. Delicious overall, excellent acidity. 55% Pinot Noir, 15% Chardonnay, the rest is Pinot Meunière. There are 100–110 crus in this final assemblage, and the work on it was finished very recently. This wine was bottled in 2015, and will be released in 2018.

Someone asked if it is possible that the puzzle will not be solved in some years. Régis Camus gave us a little smirk, and said that no, this is not possible – the puzzle will be always solved.

What can I tell you? This was definitely an eye-opening experience – we were allowed to touch the magic, the magic of creation of one of the most revered wines in the world, and it definitely exceeded my expectations.

This was the end of the Vins Clairs tasting, but the beginning of “no-holds-barred” Piper-Heidsieck Champagne tasting -we had an opportunity to try all the major Champagne Piper-Heidsieck offers – 2006 Brut Vintage, 2002 Rare Millesime, Rosé Sauvage and Cuvée Sublime (Demi-Sec)

At this point, I was part exhausted, part excited, and stopped taking notes – I can only tell you that 2006 Brut and Rosé Sauvage were two of my favorites, but I would have to leave it only at that.

Here you go, my friends – the magic of Champagne, a puzzle of a hundred pieces – but the puzzle which is always solved. The New Year is almost here, and of course it calls for a perfect bottle of Champagne – but even if not a New Year, we can simply celebrate life, and every day is a good day for that. Pour yourself a glass of sparkles and let’s drink to the magic, and life. Cheers!

Valentine’s Day Wine Experiences

February 19, 2015 13 comments

Valentine's Day wine line upLast week I gave you some recommendations for the wines to serve on Valentine’s Day. Now, let’s see if I followed my own recommendations.

Of course the plan was to start the evening with the Champagne – and then there was a … but. I recently got my hands (told you many times before  – I love my friends) on the very interesting sparkling wine from UK. What was the most interesting for me even before I tried the wine is that it contains one of the extremely difficult to find, rare grapes called Schönburger. As I mentioned last time regarding my quest to complete all the grapes in the original Wine Century Club application, Schönburger was one of those “last standing”, extremely difficult to find grapes – and the Carr Taylor Brut was the only wine containing Schönburger, which Wine-Searcher was able to find pretty much anywhere. In case you are curious, Schönburger is a rose grape created in 1979 in Germany as a cross of Pinot Noir, Chasselas and Muscat Hamburg, As an added bonus, the Carr Taylor Brut contained another grape I never heard of, another cross from Germany called Reichensteiner.

Okay, now that I provided a full disclosure, let’s talk about the wines. NV Carr Taylor Brut Sparkling Wine, England (12% ABV, $35) was an excellent start for the evening. Fine bubbles, very intense, very reminiscent of Champagne. Hint of toasted bread on the nose and may be a touch of almonds. The palate had all the toasted and yeasty notes, packaged together in compact but bright way – the wine had no sweetness, but nevertheless was perceived as a fuller body than a typical Champagne. I would gladly drink this wine again any time – if it would be available in US. Drinkability: 8-

Now it was the time for Champagne – Pierre Peters “Cuvée de Réserve” Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne (12% ABV, $55) – very classic, a hint of brioche on the nose, and nice toasted notes on the palate. Quite honestly, after the first sparkling wine, I wanted a bit more life in the glass – this was clean and fine, but more of the usual. Drinkability: 7+

Our next wine was a white Burgundy. Considering my limited experience with Burgundy, I was concerned if 10 years old wine would hold well (all of you, Burgundy buffs, please stop laughing out there – I’m still learning), so the Valentine’s Day seemed to be quite a good occasion to find out. This 2005 Domaine Fontaine-Gagnard La Romanee, Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru, France (13.5% ABV, $65) was outright delicious – beautiful nose of fresh apples, and then apples and honey on the palate – full bodied, supple, with perfect lingering weight in the mouth – this was really a treat. Too bad it didn’t last – but this was definitely an excellent wine. Drinkability: 8

Time for the reds, don’t you think? Remembering the pleasure of the Antica Terra Ceras Pinot Noir (here is the post in case you missed it), I wanted to try another Pinot Noir from Antica Terra – this time it was 2011 Antica Terra Botanica Pinot Noir Willamete Valley (13.2% ABV, $75). The nose was very similar to the Ceras – cranberries, touch of forest floor, lavender, bright and intense. On the palate, this wine had much bigger shoulders than Ceras. Ceras Pinot Noir need no breathing time – it was ready to drink from the moment the bottle was opened. Botanica needed a bit of time. After about 20 minutes in the glass, it showed its structure, dark concentrated fruit, touch of coffee, earthiness, all with a perfect balance, and again, finesse. Drinkability: 8

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And then there was Opus One. 2001 Opus One Napa Valley (14.2% ABV, $250). Quite honestly, when I learned that we will be opening Opus One, I was a bit concerned. Yes, this is one of the legendary California Cabernet Sauvignon wines, and yet when I tasted it before, I was not blown away. And when you are not visually excited about $250 bottle of wine, you feel that something is wrong with you, don’t you think? Bottle is opened, and wine is poured in the glass. Based on the color, the wine looks like it was bottled only yesterday – dark, very dark garnet. On the nose, the wine was somewhat muted but pleasant – touch of black fruit and eucalyptus. On the palate, the wine was simply closed – and aggressively tannic, with a touch of green brunches on the finish. Well, to the decanter, of course. After about an hour in decanter, the wine definitely changed for the better, showing touch of cassis and coffee notes on the palate – the tannins still stayed, but reduced, and the finish became spicy, peppery if you will – still not leading to the “wow” which you want to find in the bottle like that. Oh well. Drinkability: 7+

As we were waiting for Opus One to come around, another bottle was pulled out – 1996 Robert Sinskey Vineyards RSV Stag’s Leap District Claret Napa Valley  (13.9% ABV, $55). This wine amply compensated for the Opus One shortcomings – in a word, it was delicious. Perfectly young appearance in the glass was supported by the fresh fruit on the nose. And the palate had cassis, touch of mint, mocha, sweet oak, silky smooth tannins, perfectly layered and perfectly balanced. This was Napa Valley Cabernet at its peak, and it was not afraid to show it. Drinkability: 8

Logically (Valentine’s Day!) we had to finish on a sweet note. This was my first experience with Austrian dessert wine, and it was also a first experience with Kracher – I only heard the name before, but never tasted the wines. 2011 Kracher Auslese Cuvée Burgenland, Austria (12% ABV, $22) had everything you want in the dessert wine and nothing you don’t – delicious light honey notes, lychees, vibrant acidity, lemon peel – it was an outstanding way to finish the evening. Drinkability: 8

That is the story of our Valentine’s Day wine experiences. Well, I can’t leave with the wines alone – the food was delicious too, so let me at least share some pictures – I spent time working on them, you know. Here we go:

And we are done here. So, what were your Valentine’s day wine highlights? Cheers!

 

What To Drink On Valentine’s Day

February 12, 2015 17 comments

BollingerI generally avoid holiday-related wine posts, and I do it for a number of reasons. First of all, every information source on the planet considers it to be their duty to produce some piece of writing with wine recommendations. And then for someone who drinks wine all the time, the holidays are not so much of a special occasion to have a reason to open a bottle of wine. Oh well – somehow I felt compelled to share my thoughts on the wines for the Valentine’s Day, hence this post…

Pink. Red. Extreme. Commercialized beyond belief, still increasingly so year after year. Heart-shaped to the point of insanity. There are many things which turn people away from the Valentine’s Day, and I can understand that. However, I take this holiday as an extra opportunity to celebrate love and life. All you need to do is to find your way – ignore pink paraphernalia, ignore meaningless cards, ignore conveyer belt – style experience at the restaurants – and celebrate love and romance as a pure meaning of this holiday.

Let’s agree that we will celebrate love and romance in our oenophile’s way, and let’s talk about wine – without wine on the table, celebration is … just another boring dinner, right? By the way, when I said “felt compelled” in the opening of this post, this was not entirely true. I also had a pleasure to be a guest at the Off the Vine Radio Show, talking with Benita and Latisha about … you guessed it – Valentine’s Day wines – thus as you can imagine, I gave some thought to the subject (and then yes, “felt compelled”). In case you have a bit of time, you can listen to that episode here.

What can I tell you about wines for the Valentine’s Day? First of all, if you have a plan already, it doesn’t matter what I have to say. If you have some specific celebratory dish in mind, and have a pairing ready – it doesn’t matter what I have to say. But if you are still thinking how to make this holiday special, then let me share my thoughts with you. But remember – drink what you like. The wine for the Valentine’s day doesn’t have to be pink, and it doesn’t have to be sweet. It has to be something which will give you pleasure – as simple as that.

The wine for the Valentine’s Day should have balance and it should have finesse. While thought provoking is good for the wine, on Valentine’s Day you should focus on romance and not on deciphering the complex flavors. Go after balance, finesse and simplicity. This is why I would never suggest, for instance, the natural wines of Frank Cornelissen or Jean-Pierre Robinot, or the dark magic of Randy Dunn with his Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon – those wines will drain you emotionally, and it is a wrong angle for the Valentine’s day. Thus let’s talk about balance and finesse.

First wine I want you to consider is Champagne. As the very least, it can be an Italian Sparkling wine from Franciacorta or Trento, or some of the California sparklers. Prosecco, Cava and many other sparklers are simply not consistent enough, so for the Valentine’s Day, go with classic – remember – balance and finesse. For the Champagne, my choice would be Bollinger, as I think it is one of the finest non-vintage Champagnes, with lots of finesse. Ferrari from Trento and Bellavista from Franciacorta in Italy would definitely my next choice. But – I don’t want to forget California – Roederer Estate L’Ermitage, Schramsberg Rosé, J Cuvée 20 or any of the Gloria Ferrer sparkling wines would live you with a happy smile.

Moving on, let’s talk white wines. As we are looking for the balance and finesse, I have a few recommendations for you – and you might be surprised with these. For this holiday, I want you to step outside of your “usual circle”. My first recommendation is for the white wines of the Rhône valley in France. Yes, Rhône is mostly known for their reds, but the white wines there are equally stunning. For instance, try to find Domaine Saint Préfert Cuvée Speciale – I called this wine once “a symphony in the glass”. But in general, look for the Clairette or Grenache Blanc wines from Southern Rhône, or Marsanne/Roussanne from the North – those wines are often not easy to find, but they will deliver lots of balance, finesse and pleasure. 

Let me give you a few more suggestions – equally difficult to find, but worth looking for. Viognier from Washington is a white wine worthy of celebrating love and romance with. Look for Mark Ryan or Willis Hall – their Viognier is nothing short of stunning. To close on the whites, here are 3 more rare beauties. First, 2 Sauvignon Blanc from … Italy: Gaja Alteni di Brassica and Poggio alle Gazze dell’Ornellaia – stunning balance and finesse. And the last one – Ken Forrester The FMC. You can’t go wrong with either one of these wines – go, start looking, you don’t have lots of time.

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Now, we arrived at the red wine junction. Looking for the balance and finesse will dramatically reduce our choices. I would say, let’s go for Pinot Noir. I will limit my recommendations to this one grape only – and here is why. We are looking for the balance and finesse, right? Think about Cabernet Sauvignon from California – what would be the first word or words you would use to describe those wines – probably “big and powerful” – and this is not what I’m looking for suggesting the wines for the Valentine’s Day. Same goes for many Merlot, Syrah and Grenache wines – never mind the Petite Sirah. Even with my beloved Rioja – there are few wines, which will deliver that exact balance and finesse – La Rioja Alta Reserva Especiale would be definitely the one – and I highly recommend it. But for the Rioja – and then for Barolo, Brunello and even Super-Tuscan –  as a general class, the probability of running into “big and powerful” is a lot higher than finding “balance and finesse”.

Talking about Pinot Noir, I wish I would recommend some of the classics to you – yes, the Burgundy – but unfortunately, my exposure to the Burgundy is way too limited, so you will need to ask your trusted wine merchant for the advice. Next up – California and Oregon. For the most of the time, California Pinot Noir will deliver exactly that – balance and finesse. To give you a few names, go look for Siduri, Loring Wine Company, Calera, Drew, Copain, Laetitia – but there are many others and it is hard to go wrong with California Pinot Noir. Oregon would be also a perfect choice – look for Adelsheim, Chehalem, Antica Terra, Evening Land – finesse is a middle name for the Oregon Pinot, so you will not be disappointed. And last but not least – don’t forget the New Zealand! Pinot Noir from Central Otago, Marlborough and Martinborough are typically well balanced and round, perfectly fitting our quest for finesse. Look for the wines from Craggy Range, Mt. Difficulty and Amisfield among the others.

Dessert time! People often underestimate how bad the dessert wines can be – one sip of the cloying, single-sugar-note wine would ruin the experience of an amazing dinner. You really have to put a lot of care in selecting the dessert wine which will have balance and finesse. Of course I would like to recommend Sauternes and Barsac wines for you, but again, my personal experience is very limited. I’m sure you can’t go wrong with Château d’Yquem – if you can afford it, go for it! What would be a bit easier to find (and afford) is a Port. Not just any Port – balance and finesse, remember – so go for a nicely aged Tawny, 20-, 30- or 40-years old. As Port ages, it loses power, and becomes fragrant and sublime, guaranteed to deliver lots of pleasure. Look for Rozes, Graham, Quinta do Noval – lot’s of excellent choices. Then of course, the king of the dessert wines – Riesling. For the special experience, I would only recommend to go to the BA and TBA levels – you know, the stuff which always comes in the small bottles. You see, it is very hard to mass-produce BA or TBA level Rieslings – you can’t harvest enough grapes at those sugar levels – thus it is hard to go wrong with BA or TBA Riesling from any producer. And the last recommendation for today – an Icewine. Not any Icewine, but I want to recommend my personal favorite – Inniskillin Cabernet Franc Icewine. This wine is vibrant, perfectly balanced and has lots of finesse – I guarantee you will finish your Valentine’s Day dinner on a high note with this wine.

Here you go, my friends – in the quest for the balance and finesse, these are some of my personal recommendations to enhance you Valentine’s Day experience. Let me know what do you think about my suggestions and feel free to provide your own. Happy Valentine’s Day and cheers!

 

 

Weekly Wine Quiz #102: Grape Trivia – Blends, Part 6

May 10, 2014 12 comments

two cremantsThe Wine Quiz series is not meant to intimidate. The whole idea here is to have fun and learn something new. When answering the questions, it is fully encouraged to use all available sources of information, including Google or any other search engine. There are no embarrassing answers – the most embarrassing thing is not giving it a try…

Welcome to the weekend and your new wine quiz!

We are continuing our grape trivia series,  focusing on the blends, even if it is a blend of 1. White, Red, Rosé, Sparkling, Still, Fortified and Dessert – all goes. Oh yes, and we will blend in some regions and even wineries as well, just to make it more fun.

Absolute majority of the wines are the blends of some sort, but there is one wine which to me is a complete standout in terms of the art of blending – I’m talking about Champagne. A typical bottle of the so called Non-Vintage Champagne is a blend of different wines from different vintages, all magically concocted together to achieve the consistent taste. As a special tribute to Champagne, I would like to focus today’s quiz only on the sparkling wines, which nowadays are produced absolutely everywhere.

And now, to the quiz!

Q1: French sparkling wines produced outside of the Champagne region are generally called Crémant. Today, the Crémant wines are produced in most of the well known regions in France, each region imposing its own requirements on the winemaking techniques. For one of sparkling wines below, if it is identified as Crémant Blanc, it is required for at least 50% of the grapes to be Chardonnay. Do you know which wine has this requirement?

a. Crémant d’Alsace

b. Crémant de Bordeaux

c. Crémant de Bourgogne

d. Crémant du Jura

Q2: Among other reasons, complexity of sparkling wines comes from the extended time the fermented juice have to stay in contact with the yeast (it is also called aging on the lees). Sort the list of the sparkling wines below based on the minimum time required for the non-vintage wine to be aged on the lees, from the longest to the shortest:

a. Cava

b. Champagne

c. Franciacorta

d. Trento

Q3: Dom Pérignon, a benedictine monk, largely considered to be the father of Champagne, had a very significant impact on creation the Champagne as we know it. From the list below, what do you think was Dom Pérignon’s major claim to fame?

a. He created the Champagne bottle

b. He discovered the Méthode Champenoise

c. He created the riddling table

d. He mastered the art of blending to improve the taste of the resulting wine

Q4: Below is the blend composition of the sparkling wine – can you name it?

Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Mauzac

Q5: As tomorrow is the Mother’s Day in US, here is probably an open ended and debatable question, but: Who would you call the Mother of Champagne and why?

Good luck, enjoy the quiz and your weekend! Cheers!

Sparkling New Year Experiences

January 10, 2014 19 comments

My brain is limited – it can only support one obsession at a time. Generally, this blog wins, but last month I got hooked on the Doctor Who series (yes, I’m a science fiction junkie), and over the last couple of days, the Doctor Who was clearly winning over the blog writing, as I couldn’t stop watching. Taking the obsession under control, I will try to switch some attention to this beloved blog.

NY WinesNew Year’s day is a Sparkling wine time for me. It doesn’t have to be Champagne, but bubbles are indispensable part of the welcoming the New Year. And then January 1st is generally the day of bubbles – we have friends coming over for the small dinner and lots of bubbles on that first day of the New Year.

The 2014 was not an exception at all – so here are some of the Sparkling wines which added sparkle to our celebration. Oh yes, of course there were few other things to drink besides the sparkling wines.

If you look at the picture above, down on the right you will see… yes, this is beer! Somehow, I felt compelled to include it into the wine line up, as I was drinking it while we were cooking the day before the New Year. Also, when I see a French beer, there is almost a calling in my head “ahh, French beer, I must try it”. This was Brasserie Duyck Jenlain Winter Ale, a seasonal brew from France, produced using three French barley malts and three varieties of the most aromatic hops from Alsace (according to the back label). In style it was an Amber Ale, so it was round and delicate, with a spicy nose and very easy to drink, without any bite – in general Amber is one of my favorite beer styles, right next to the Porter.

Coming to the New Year’s day, we started our evening with 2012 Cecilia Beretta Brut Millesimato Prosecco Superiore Coneglian Valdobbiadene DOCG, Italy (11% ABV) – yes, I already talked about this wine before (here is the post), and I think at this point this is my most memorable Prosecco out of many I tried. It is perfectly together, balanced, elegant, structured and refreshing – and unbeatable value on top of everything. Drinkability: 8-

Then we had two non-common sparkling wines – one from Russia, and one from Ukraine. The Russian Sparkler was NV Abrau-Durso Semi-Sweet Sparkling Wine, Russia (10.5%-12.5% ABV) – fine mousse, touch of sweetness, ripe apples on the palate with a hint of peach, good acidity, overall quite elegant. Drinkability: 7+

The 2010 Artemovsk Krim Semi-Sweet Sparkling Wine, Ukraine (12% ABV, blend of Pinot Blanc, Aligote, Chardonnay and Riesling) was a notch up compare to the Abrau-Durso – perfectly refreshing bubbles, supple nose of apples with touch of yeast, just a hint of sweetness on the palate with balancing, rounding up acidity. If off-dry sparkling wine is your style (or a craving of the moment), I would highly recommend this wine. Drinkability: 8

What can be better than a nice wine label? Of course, a nice wine behind that label! This was the case with this NV Tsarine Champagne Cuvée Premium, Reims (12% ABV, 34% Chardonnay, 33% Pinot Meunier, 33% Pinot Noir). I was so impressed with the bottle and overall packaging, that I even had a wine quiz dedicated to this wine. I was a bit worrying that behind a gorgeous, royal, flashy label will be a so-so wine. Once I popped the cork and pour the wine, the worry went away in the instant. Perfect fizz, lots of energy in the glass. The nose shows everything which signifies Champagne to me – freshly baked bread, touch of yeast, a touch of an apple. On the palate, it had all of the same toasted bread, yeast and apple, coupled with clean, vibrant acidity – and lots of pleasure. Needless to say that this wine was gone in no time. Drinkability: 8

Tsarine Champagne

Tsarine Champagne

Our last bottle of the evening was 2005 AR Pe Pe Grumello Riserva Buon Consiglio Valtelina Superiore DOCG (13% ABV, 100% Chiavennasca, a.k.a. Nebbiolo), which Stefano generously brought over. This was an absolutely delicious rendition of Nebbiolo – brick orange hue in the glass, delicate aromas of plums and violets, with may be a whiff of cinnamon, fragrant, earthy and delicate on the palate – very un-Barolo in style, but perfectly balanced with the long finish and lots of pleasure in every drop. Drinkability: 8

Ar Pe Pe Grumello

Ar Pe Pe Grumello

And then, of course, there was food – I will give you just a few pictures – lots of traditional Russian style dishes – cold cuts, red caviar, salads, lots of pickled vegetables. I might share some recipes later on.

That concludes my report on our New Year’s extravaganza. Cheers!

Month in Wines (and Whiskys) – December 2013

January 3, 2014 2 comments

At first I wanted to preface this post with the notion of December being somewhat uneventful in terms of great wine experiences, but as I was thinking about it, I realized that this would be a mistake to put it like that. So yes, December brought quite a few of the great discoveries.

Here we go:

NV Ayala Brut Majeur Ay Champagne, France (12% ABV, 45% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Meunier ) – one of the very best non-vintage champagne I ever tasted – perfectly complex, yeasty, showing aromas of the fresh bread and apples, all in a very bright and energetic package. Considering the price ($26.99 on special) is simply unbeatable (people, stop buying the yellow label, get the real thing and save some money!). 8

2011 Mt. Beautiful Sauvignon Blanc North Canterbury, New Zealand (14% ABV) – nice, restrained – recognizably New Zealand, but more in the Sancerre style, with grass and lemon prevailing over the grapefruit. Well balanced and very refreshing.  8-

2012 Mt. Beautiful Pinot Noir North Canterbury, New Zealand (13.5% ABV) – clean. delicate. perfectly balanced. perfectly delicious. Saying that Mt Beautiful Pinot Noir is beautiful sounds somewhat broken, but there is nothing I can do here – definitely an outstanding Pinot Noir of a rare precision. 8+

2010 Hooker Breakaway Chardonnay Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley (13.3% ABV) – Perfectly classic – vanilla, apple, butter and toasted oak, all elegantly connected, round and supple, perfectly balanced and supported by acidity. A pleasure. 8-

2011 Bogle Petite Sirah California (13.5% ABV) – probably one of the very best value wines in existence – I have to yet to taste a bad Bogle Petite Sirah. Amazingly consistent from vintage to a vintage – dark fruit on the nose and the palate, blackberries and raspberries, firm structure, powerful but elegant tannins, very good balance. 8-

2007 Talullah Syrah Bald Mountain Napa Valley (14.8% ABV) – inky black color in the glass, very restrained on the nose, nice dark fruit on the palate with the spicy notes. Definitely needs time to evolve. 8-

2004 Chateau Puy Arnaud Maureze Côtes de Castillon AOC (13.5% ABV) – very nice, rich, open and classic Bordeaux – hint of cassis, touch of bell peppers, well structured with firm tannins, good overall balance. 8-

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2008 Gorys Crespiello Cariñena DO (14% ABV, 100% Old Vine Vidadillo) – outstanding. Very restrained, with nice dark fruit on the nose, on the palate shows raspberries and elegant sweet oak undertones, nice earthiness. Well balanced and intriguing, a thought provoking wine. Medium to long, mellow finish. This is the wine to be enjoyed slowly, preferably with the book or by the fire. Highly, highly recommended. Ahh, and on top of everything – a new grape. 8

1998 La Rioja Alta 904 Gran Reserva, Rioja, Spain (12.5% ABV) – dialed back and elegant, needs time to open up. Nice fruit, cedar notes, well present tannins, good overall balance. Needs time. 8-

2010 Quota 31 Primitivo Menhir Salento, Salento IGT (14% ABV) – playful and elegant. Dark, dense fruit, raspberries and blackberries profile, round tannins, good balance. Very enjoyable. 8-

And here are few of the whisky discoveries:

Blue Ridge Distilling Defiant Whisky, North Carolina (41% ABV, 100% Malted Barley) – North Carolina, really? Well, I’m kidding, I’m not that surprised at all – after tasting great drams from Oregon, Utah, Texas and New York, I believe that great whisky can be made anywhere, as long as you apply enough passion. This whisky was unique and different, as it was the most scotch-like compare to all other US whiskeys I tasted. Very well balanced with nice viscosity, some caramel undertones, herbs and acidity.

The Lost Distillery Company Auchnagie Blended Malt Whisky (46% ABV) – one of the very best whiskys I ever tasted – touch of smoke, perfectly clean and balanced. It is also a very unique product – you can read my original post for more details about it.

Gordon & MacPhail Highland Park 8 yo (40% ABV) – I know that many people will just turn their nose away from this scotch simply based on the “low age” of 8 years. To me, this was absolutely delicious – excellent peatiness (I love peat in my scotch, if you don’t – this will not be your drink), clean, balanced – an excellent dram.

That’s all I have to report for December. Cheers!

Henri’s Reserve – The Art Of Boutique Champagne

October 28, 2013 9 comments

Did you know that every last Friday in October now has a designated “wine holiday”? Yep, and not just any wine holiday – it is actually a Global Champagne Day (Champagne and Friday perfectly go together, don’t they?)  My “problem” (may all of our problems be so hard) of choosing the bottle of Champagne to open to celebrate Global Champagne Day last Friday was taken care of by invitation I got from Henri’s Reserve – to come and celebrate Champagne Day in style at Southport Galleries in Connecticut.

Henri’s Reserve is a boutique Champagne purveyor, primarily focusing on the small, artisanal Champagne producers. Most of the common Champagne people buy in the stores come from so called Champagne Houses, such as Moët & Chandon, Bollinger, Louis Roederer, Veuve Cliquot and many others. For the most part, Champagne houses buy the grapes from the grape growers, and make (blend) their wines to have a persistent, chateau-specific taste.  At the same time, a number of grape growers (there are about 19,000 of them in Champagne) also produce their own wines. Until recently, those wines were literally impossible to find outside of France – but over the last 5-7 years, the situation changed and so called Growers Champagne became more available in US and other countries.

You might ask what is so special about Growers Champagne? While Champagne houses are mostly focused on blending to achieve their house-specific taste, growers are a lot more terroir-driven. Growers know their best vineyards and best parcels inside those vineyards, and that knowledge translates into unique wines with the sense of place – often at a lot more affordable price than the wine coming from the big houses. To give you one example, one of my favorite Champagnes from this tasting, Egly-Ouriet Grand Cru, comes form the village of Ambonnay. One of the most exclusive Champagne houses in the world, Krug, also produces the wine from the vineyards in the Ambonnay village. That Krug wine, called Clos de Ambonnay, would set you back at around $2700 per bottle (probably the most expensive Champagne on the market). While I’m not comparing Egly-Ouriet Champagne with Krug (never tasted Clos de Ambonnay), it costs almost 40 times less that that bottle of Krug, and at around $70, it is really an excellent Champagne.

Getting back to Henri’s Reserve – they actually make the Growers Champagnes available to the average wine consumer. If you look at Henri’s Reserve web site, you will find a lot of useful information about Champagne in general, pairing of Champagne with the food, how to open the Champagne bottle, entertaining with Champagne and a lot more. What is most important, though, is that you will be able to buy some of those excellent growers Champagnes.

Ruth Frantz of Henri's Reserve addressing the audience

Ruth Frantz of Henri’s Reserve addressing the audience

Now, let’s talk about our Global Champagne Day celebration. We had an opportunity to try 9 different Grower Champagnes. I didn’t focus on taking the detailed notes, as I was very busy mingling, so below is the list of the wines we tried with my brief notes. Don’t worry, it will be easy to figure out if I had any favorites.

NV Guiborat Fils Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, Cramant (100% Chardonnay) – clean crisp acidity, a bit of brioche on the nose. Very good. Drinkability: 7+

NV Jacques Lassaigne Banc de Blancs Le Vignes de Mongueux (100% Chardonnay) – also perfectly clean and crisp, touch of yeast on the nose. Very good. Drinkability: 7+

2006 Guiborat Fils Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, Cramant (100% Chardonnay) – has all the traits of vintage Champagne – brioche, toasted bread, apples, touch of yeast – but very delicately balanced, not over the top. Very good. Drinkability: 7+

NV Egly-Ouriet Brut Tradition Grand Cru, Ambonay (70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay) – a beautiful wine. Touch of yeast on the nose, crisp acidity and noticeable fruit notes on the palate – not in the terms of sweetness, but just more pronounced white fruit sensation than it would be in the typical Champagne. Outstanding. Drinkability: 8+

NV H. Blin Brut, Vincelles (80% Pinot Meunier, 20% Chardonnay) – perfect acidity with somewhat of a medium body, nice mid-palate weight, very round. Excellent. Drinkability: 8-

NV Pierre Gimonnet & Fils 1er Cru Brut Blanc de Blancs Sélection Belles Anneés (100% Charodnnay) – very nice nose of brioche and touch of apple, same on the palate with some interesting mineral undertones. Very good. Drinkability: 8-

2002 H. Blin Blin’s Brut Edition Limitée Millésimé (40% Pinot Meunier, 30% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay) – this wine was the last one in the tasting, and it didn’t reach the optimal serving temperature, unfortunately (was too warm).

NV H. Billiot Grand Cru Brut Rosé, Ambonnay (80% Pinot Meunier, 20% Chardonnay) – crisp, clean, may be a bit too acidic for Rosé. Or may be it was too cold (can Champagne be too cold?). Drinkability: 7

NV Jean Laurent Blanc de Noirs, Celles-surOurce (100% Pinot Noir) – very nice, medium body, interesting complexity. Very good. Drinkability: 7+

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I have a confession to make. I’m not a Champagne guy. I appreciate a glass of a good bubbly, whether it is Champagne, or Prosecco, or Cava – but Sparkling wine is not my usual daily wine. Having said that, you know what happened after this tasting? I was craving Champagne! I resolve not to wait until the next Global Champagne Day to satisfy that craving – and you might expect to see more sparkles in this blog. Thank you, Henri’s Reserve, for the great time! Cheers!

Bread and Amarone

March 5, 2013 15 comments

Puzzled by the title? Don’t be. This is simply the post about our last Valentine’s Day experience – yes, somewhat belated, but still worth sharing.

Let’s start with the picture. No pink hearts here, only roses, but take a look – what is that lurking in the fuzzy background?

DSC_0182 Roses and Champagne

Yep, a Champagne glass, the Tulip! Before we get to the bread and Amarone, let’s talk about Champagne Sparkling wine. By the way, this political correctness is very tiring. Champagne is much faster to say and to write, but no-ooo, Champagne only comes from Champagne, and everything else should be called a Sparkling Wine. It is two words versus one, and takes twice as much time to say and read! And the worst part is that the Sparkling wine in very many cases tastes much better than Champagne, and don’t even get me going on the pricing… Okay, sorry, unintentional rant, let’s cut it out and go back to what I actually wanted to talk about.

DSC_0163 Roederer 2003My definite preference is to start a holiday, especially the one like Valentine’s Day, with the glass of Cham, errr, Sparkling Wine. It creates mood. It says (loudly) “Celebrate!”. Lightness and effervesce of the bubbles simply picks you up. So this past Valentine’s day our choice of bubbly (yes, jargon – but  – it is one word! and it means any sparkling wine, Champagne or not) was 2003 Roederer Estate L’Ermitage Brut Anderson Valley California. Perfectly structured, perfectly balanced, with full harmony both on the nose and the palate. Fresh bread, yeast, toasted apple, perfect acidity, long-living bubbles – all in all, one of the best sparkling wines I ever tasted. Drinkability: 8+

Now, to the bread! Let me not be original – I’m simple going to repeat the note (a huge Thank You, rather) of appreciation which is being expressed all over the blogosphere – the useful content, the advice, information, ideas which are shared by the bloggers are simply staggering. About a month ago I read the blog post by one of the fellow bloggers, Kim from She Wines Sometimes (if you are not following her blog – fix this mistake right now). The post was talking about making the bread! At home! In a simple way!

I have to admit – I love bread. When in France, I can survive on just baguette alone (okay, throw in a little cheese, will you?). But baking the bread at home was not anything I would fathom in my wildest dreams. Until I read Kim’s blog post. It sounded so easy – I had no choice, but to say – this is it, I’m making the bread!

When it comes to baking, I dread the precision of the recipes. I consider myself to be an okay cook – I can substitute ingredients, I can come up with my own recipes, where I can measure all the ingredients with very precise “I think this is enough” accuracy. It doesn’t work like that in baking. Replace baking powder with baking soda and you might end up with a complete flap instead of a good tasting product – and the same goes for many other ingredients. This is why I usually think about baking as something better left to the professionals – but then again, all the professionals start somewhere, don’t they?

I’m not going to repeat the recipe here – here is the link to the original. Of course I ended up making some mistakes. The recipe calls specifically for King Arthur bread flour. I didn’t print the recipe before going to the store, and of course I ended up with the regular King Arthur flour. At first I even forgot to buy the yeast – and the second trip to the store was in order. But, you know what? All this doesn’t matter. Because the bread tasted AMAZING!

DSC_0158 Bread

And the smell of the freshly baked bread when you just walk into the house – it is simply something heavenly (and pretty much priceless). The only thing I need to add here – Thank You Kim!

DSC_0185 Amarone CorkAnd now, to the wine. Not just any wine – Amarone! If you followed this blog for some duration of time, you know that I’m always on the lookout for the perfect Amarone, trying to replicate my moment of bliss smelling succulent raisins and tasting perfectly dry and powerful wine (here you can find a collection of my Amarone posts ). That “perfect wine” was 1997 Le Ragose Amarone, which I tasted in 2004, so the wine was 7 years old. And now it was Le Ragose Amarone again.

Looking at the cork, can you try to guess how the wine was? Did you write down your answer? Okay, good.

We opened the bottle of 1990 Le Ragose Amarone Della Valpolicella (so, did you guess correctly?). I have some experience opening old wines, and when you open a bottle of wine which is 23 years old, you expect trouble. I had my double-prong bottle opener ready, but when I removed the foil and looked at the cork, it appeared to be as fresh as it would be on the new bottle. And it actually was – the standard waiter corkscrew worked just fine!

DSC_0167 Le Ragose Amarone

And the wine was outstanding. No, it didn’t replicate my experience with 1997 – this was a lot more mature wine. But it had a perfect nose of dried fruit – not only raisins, but probably some dried cherries, fig, prunes. The palate showed mature beauty, with the fruit which is tamed, but still has perfect acidity to make it all work together – there was more dried fruit on the palate, more cherries, more prunes, leather and earthiness. Definitely was a great wine, and as an added bonus – it was only 14% ABV! All the modern Amarone are trying to exceed 16% by now, and one of the geniuses of the winemaking recently even told me that you need high alcohol to preserve the wine… ok, stop. Sorry. One rant per post. This one will have to wait for another time. All in all this 1990 Le Ragose was a great experience, so let’s live it at that. Drinkability: 9-.

That’s all I have for you for today folks. It is too late to ask about your Valentine’s day experiences by now, but did you drink any amazing wines lately? Or made bread : ) ? Cheers!

Re-Post: Best Hidden Secrets Of The Wine World: French Sparkling Wines

January 31, 2013 12 comments

During 2011, I wrote a number of posts for the project called The Art Of Life Magazine – of course talking about my favorite subject, wine. The project closed and even the web site is down, but I still like those posts, so I decided to re-post them in this blog. Also, in that project, posts were grouped into mini-series, such as “Best Hidden Secrets” you see here – I will continue re-posting them from time to time.

Also note that the series was written for a slightly different audience – I hope none of my readers will take offense in the fact that sometimes I’m stating the obvious…

Saint-HilaireSo far we talked about a number of “secrets” of the wine world: Rioja, Second Labels, Amarone, wines of Georgia. Let’s continue our journey of discovery. This time we are going to talk about French Sparkling Wines.

Everybody knows about Champagne, a special wine for celebrations. If we think that occasion is special enough, the first thought is: we need a bottle of Champagne to celebrate. Of course producers of Champagne also know that, and respond with ever increasing prices – it is practically impossible to find the bottle of Champagne for less than $35 – and as with any other wine, there is no limit on top.

What is Champagne anyway? First of all Champagne is a place, a region in northern France – the only place in the world which can produce bottles of the sparkling beverage with the Champagne name on it. Second of all, Champagne is a sparkling wine, made in accordance with very specific winemaking rules and techniques, which are typically referred to as “Méthode Champenoise”. In that method (which legend has, was discovered by accident), the wine is fermented twice, and second fermentation takes place in the closed bottle, which leads to the wine becoming carbonated (hence the generic name “sparkling wine”). One quick note on the grapes – traditional champagne is produced from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, in various combinations as decided by the producer. If you want to read more, as usual Wikipedia offers great wealth of information (you can read it here).

Today sparkling wines are made all over the world, and of course none of them can be called Champagne, as the word “Champagne” on the label is protected by law. I’m sure you heard many of the names and tried many of the wines, but to give you a brief summary, Spain produces sparkling wine under the name Cava, Italy typically makes Prosecco (there are some other lightly sparkled wines, like Moscato D’Asti, but we will leave it aside for this post). Sekt is made in Germany, and most of the other countries simply use the term “Sparkling wine”, sometimes also identifying the grape, such as Sparkling Shiraz from Australia or Sparkling Malbec from Argentina.

With such a diversity and widely available offerings, why French sparkling wines are such a secret? While being the closest to the original (Champagne), they offer probably the best QPR (Quality Price Ratio), beating often California Sparkling wines and even Cava – and they taste really authentic.

French_Sparkling_with_GlassesThere is a substantial variety of Sparkling wines coming from France alone. Almost each and every wine producing region (Burgundy, Bordeaux, Alsace, Loire, Jura, …) produces its own versions of the sparkling wines, in most of the cases called Cremant: Cremant de Bordeaux, Cremant de Bourgogne, Cremant de Jura, Cremant de Loire and others. You can find additional information on the sparkling wines here. All of these Cremant wines are made using the same “méthode champenoise”, however, typical regional grapes can be used to make the wine.

So as usual, I wanted to prove to you that the knowledge I’m sharing is worthy of a “secret” designation, which can be of course done by forcing you, me readers, to buy the wine and taste it (and then telling me that I was right). However, as this is not an easy undertaking, I took this function upon myself, and here are the results of tasting of 3 inexpensive French Sparkling wines. I got 3 French Sparkling wines – Saint-Hilaire Blanquette de Limoux Brut ($10.99), Cave de L’Aurance Cremant de Buourgogne Brut ($11.99) and Lucien Albrecht Cremant de Alsace Rose Brut ($14.99). Before we talk about tasting notes, I want to mention that the Saint-Hilaire Blanquette de Limoux claims to be the first sparkling wine ever, produced by Benedictine Monks in Saint-Hilaire abbey in 15th century ( beating Champagne by at least a hundred years) – but I guess they never put much effort into marketing, while Champagne did, so the result is obvious (however, it is better for us, consumers).

French_SparklingAnyway, here are the notes:

2008 Saint-Hilaire Blanquette de Limoux Brut: closest to the classic champagne. Nose of yeast and hint of fresh bread, very refreshing, good acidity, citrus notes, dry, medium to full body. Best of tasting.

Cave de L’Aurance Cremant de Bourgogne Brut: quite limited expression on the nose, but very elegant on the palate. Offers golden delicious apple and ripe white grapefruit notes, medium body.

Lucien Albrecht Cremant de Alsace Brut Rose: very complex on the nose, with some onion peel and white truffle. On the palate offers strawberries, pink grapefruit, medium body.

Now you know one more secret. No, you don’t need to trust me. I would definitely encourage you to get a bottle of your favorite Champagne. Then you need to get a bottle of Blanquette de Limoux, and compare them in the blind tasting. I have done this with the group of friends, and you can find the surprising results here. I challenge you to do it – and then leave me a comment with the result – I will be waiting.

That’s all for now, folks. For the next secret of the wine world – stay tuned. More secrets are coming…