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!
To 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.
[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!
Today, class, we will be talking about things obscure. Yes, things obscure, but not in the whole entire world, of course, but in the world of wine.
In your opinion, if we use the word “obscure” in conjunction with the word “wine”, would that be a good thing or a bad thing? For starters, let’s think about the meaning of the word itself. Here is how New Oxford American Dictionary defines “obscure”:
Now that we are clear on the meaning, let’s go back to our original question: “obscure + wine” – is it good or bad?
Reading wine’s description, have you ever come across the words “obscure grapes”? I’m not talking about the stuff you read on the back label, as there you will rather find the words “indigenous grapes”, “traditional grapes”, or maybe, “local grapes”. But if are reading blogs, or any of the “peer reviews”, I’m sure you’ve encountered the “obscure grapes”. I get it – “obscure” often implies that we got something to hide in a bad way – but not in this case. Referring to the definition we just saw, “obscure” here simply means “not discovered or known about”. Need examples? How about Trepat, Bobal, Gros Manseng, Khikhvi – heard of those grapes?
My favorite part is that obscure often translates into pleasure – lots of pleasure for the oenophile. Unlike most of the other food and drinks humans consume, wine taste is largely perceived. We have expectations for how Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay should taste, and when we don’t find that taste while drinking one of the “well known” wines, we often get disappointed. But when presented with the “obscure bottle”, all those preconceived notions are largely thrown out of the window, and we take wine for what it actually is – which gives us a great chance to enjoy something we wouldn’t otherwise.
It is not only wine drinkers who get more pleasure from the obscure grapes – when using those little-known grapes, winemakers are also not bound by any “customer expectations”, which gives them more freedom to express themselves. From the personal experience, I found that more often than not, I truly enjoy those obscure wines, and quite honestly, I like hunting down those unknown wines and grapes because of the pure mystery in the glass.
By the same token, lesser known wine regions (read: obscure) have the same advantage for both oenophiles and winemakers. What do you expect when you see Czech Republic, Georgian Republic, Mallorca or Valle d’Aosta written on the bottle? Most likely, you wouldn’t know what to expect, and thus you would take the wine for what it is. However, when you drink Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or Spanish Rioja, you have a set of expectations in your head, and you always are ready to say “ahh, this doesn’t taste anything like Napa Cab”. Presented with the Czech Pinot Noir or Chinese Cabernet Sauvignon, you have no choice but to try it and decide whether you like it or not. Same as in the case of the obscure grapes, winemakers get an opportunity to freely create without the need to comply with a given set of expectations.
What we need to keep in mind though that the concept of “obscure” is very personal. For someone who lives in the Republic of Georgia, Georgian wines are very far from obscure. For someone who grew up in Conca de Barberà region in Catalonia in Spain, Trepat might be a perfectly familiar grape. But looking at the big picture, all of us, wine lovers, have our own, personal obscure territories – and this is where we might discover great pleasure. What makes it even more interesting is that the more we learn about the wine world, the more we understand how still little we know. And so we can keep on that road, shedding the light on obscure and making it (if we are lucky) dear and familiar, one discovery at a time.
I wish you all, oenophiles, lots of pleasant encounters with obscure sides of the wine world – as this is where the pleasure is hiding. Cheers!
This post is an entry for the 27th Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC30), with the theme of “Obscure”. Previous themes in the order of appearance were: Transportation, Trouble, Possession, Oops, Feast, Mystery, Devotion, Luck, Fear, Value, Friend, Local, Serendipity, Tradition, Success, Finish, Epiphany, Crisis, Choice, Variety, Pairing, Second Chance, New, Pleasure, Travel, Solitude, Bubbles, Smile, Winestory
More than 3 years ago, an interesting tradition was born in the world of wine blogging (a brainchild of The Drunken Cyclist, with the help of the supporting cast of characters) – the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge. Every month or so, wine bloggers en mass subject themselves to the masochistic practice of taking a random word and creating a soulful connection from that word to the beloved world of wine – all of it on a tight deadline.
Writing a post for the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (MWWC for short), I always want to put out a regular post, and then at the end, simply state “and by the way, this was written for the MWWC, ha”- just to show how easy it was. Of course, this practically never happens – like today, with the theme of our epistolary exercise been “Bubbles“, and my writing taking place during the very last hour (sigh).
When oenophile hears the word “bubbles”, the first reaction it triggers is “Champagne!”. It gives us such a pleasure to write about the world of “Sparklers” – the ingenuity of Dom Perignon, the resourcefulness of Widow Cliquot, the battles of I-was-the-first-to-make-my-wine-sparkle.
There are many other connections of the bubbles to the world of wines – think about bubbles you see on the surface of the juice during fermentation – those are some bubbles! Or think about simple, tiny bubbles of oxygen, making it through the cork and allowing the wines to age gently and gracefully – these bubbles are critical. And then there are maybe bubble issues for the wine collectors? Will that price of DRC or Petrus ever come down?
Yes, I will take my own, different course, and will not write about Champagne or Sparkling wines. For sure.
Do you believe me? Who said “no”? How did you guess?
Banal or not, but I have a good reason to write about sparkling wines – Prosecco, to be more precise. A few weeks ago, I was offered to review some Prosecco wines. At first, my reaction was “I’ll pass”. But reading the email more carefully, my interest piqued. I always thought of Prosecco wines made from 100% of grape called Glera (yes, there are few exceptions, like Bisol, but just a few). These three Prosecco wines were all blended – Processo DOC rules allow up to 15% of other grapes in the blend – and the blends were all unusual, so the intrigued brain said “why not”?
As we are talking about Prosecco, I need to share some fun facts with you – who doesn’t like statistics, right?
French Sparkling wine and then Champagne had been around for a bit less than 500 years. Prosecco’s history is only a bit longer than 100 years, and only in 1989 (27 years ago!) Prosecco made it for real outside of the Italy (here is the link to my post about it, in case you are interested in history). However, according to Nielsen report, Prosecco sales in US in 2015 grew by 36% (Champagne – 8%). In 2015, Italy produced its largest Prosecco crop ever with 467 million bottles – that is triple of only 7 years ago; out of this amount, 48 million bottles were exported to the US – and still US is only #3 importer of Prosecco behind UK and Germany.
Moving right along, let me decipher a cryptic title of this post for you (not that you cared much, right?).
Zonin family got into the wine business in 1821, almost 200 years ago. Now in the 7th generation, the family manages about 5,000 acres of vineyards, mostly in Italy. Zonin had been making Prosecco for the very long time, but considering the ever growing interest, they decided to offer a new line of Prosecco wines, called “Dress Code”, suitable for different mood and a company. The “Dress Code” colors include white, grey and black, so you can wear a different color every day. Of course, these are only colors of the bottles, nobody added squid ink to the wines… yet? Hmmm, note to self…
Here are the notes for the wines I tasted:
Zonin Prosecco White Edition Prosecco DOC (11% ABV, SRP $16.90, 91% Glera and 9% Pinot Bianco cuvée): simple overall. On the nose, touch of white fruit. Good creaminess on the palate, touch of white fruit, very restrained, good acidity, but again, overall is a very muted expression. 7/7+, Decent everyday glass of bubbly.
Zonin Prosecco Grey Edition Prosecco DOC (11% ABV, SRP $16.90, 87% Glera and 13% Pinot Grigio cuvée): white stone fruit on the nose, white flowers. Palate: light, creamy, effervescent, refreshing, distant hint of sweetness, round, good acidity. 8-, nice upgrade from the “white”.
Zonin Prosecco Black Edition Prosecco DOC (11% ABV, SRP $16.90, 90% Glera and 10% Pinot Noir cuvée): promising touch of fruit with lemon and rocky minerality on the nose. Perfect acidity, elegance, finesse on the palate, touch of white stone fruit, lime and noticeable nutmeg. Most elegant out of three, a “little black dress” if you will. 8/8+, one of the most elegant Prosecco I ever had.
So, what color are your bubbles? My favorite was black. Cheers!
This post is an entry for the 27th Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC27), with the theme of “Bubbles”. Previous themes in the order of appearance were: Transportation, Trouble, Possession, Oops, Feast, Mystery, Devotion, Luck, Fear, Value, Friend, Local, Serendipity, Tradition, Success, Finish, Epiphany, Crisis, Choice, Variety, Pairing, Second Chance, New, Pleasure, Travel, Solitude
One of my favorite ways to start a conversation is to ask a trivia question, so here it is. We all take Prosecco for granted – if one wants to casually have a glass of wine with bubbles, Prosecco would handily beat any other sparkling wine as a top choice, no matter where in the world you are. Now, for the trivia part: do you know when Prosecco first appeared in London? I will give you few moments to ponder that question. Meanwhile, few basic facts: Prosecco hails from the hills of Veneto, where wines (still wines, it is) were produced for more than 500 years; Charmat-Martinotti method, used in the production of Prosecco, with the secondary fermentation taking place in a steel tank instead of the bottle (“secondary fermentation” is what produces those adorable bubbles), was first created in 1895. So when do you think Prosecco showed up in London?
The answer: 1989. And all due to the tenacity and passion. Bisol family had been producing the wine in Veneto for more than 20 generations (yes, I do call this a passion). When Gianluca Bisol approached his father and said that he wants to bring Prosecco to London, the father’s response was very quick (cue in Italian pronunciation and emotional hand gestures): “you are crazy!”. That didn’t stop Gianluca, and to London off he went. It appears that his father was almost right – selling unknown sparkling wine, door to door, in the downturn economic times, was not going swimmingly well, by any measure. Until a lucky coincidence (well, people would call it “luck”, but we all know that luck usually works best after applying lots and lots of hard, dedicated effort), when at one of the best restaurants in London, Gianluca met wine director who was not only Italian, but also born and raised in the same Veneto region, and was extremely happy to see his beloved Prosecco. As they like to say it in the books, the rest was history. Today, Prosecco outsells Champagne in UK 3 to 1. And annual production of Prosecco hit 540 million bottles in 2015. Just to finish with historical references, Prosecco made it to the US in 1992/1993 (in case you are wondering).
I had a pleasure of meeting Gianluca Bisol at lunch at Marta restaurant in the New York City, and we spend two hours talking, tasting wines and of course, eating tasty food (detailed account follows). This is where I heard the story of Prosecco concurring the UK, as well as many other interesting facts which all together can be summarized in one single word – passion. Passion for the land, vines and wines. Passion for the whole Veneto region. Passion for the traditions which are more than 20 generations strong. But also a passion for the not stopping, for continuing to innovate and to create – new wines and also new wineries.
Our tasting included 7 different wines, out of which 4 were Bisol wines, but 3 were from the winery called Maeli Colli Euganei, the winery which Gianluca helped to start in 2010. Actually the plan was that at the lunch, Gianluca will be joined by Elisa Dilavanzo, the owner of Maeli winery – unfortunately, Elisa got sick and had to stay behind, so Gianluca had a duty of representing both wineries – which he completed with flying honors, as you can imagine.
We started our tasting with 2014 Maeli Fior d’Arancio DOCG Sweet (6% ABV, SRP $27, Residual sugar 115 g/l, 100% Fior d’Arancia, a.k.a. Yellow Muscat) – nice sweetness, clean, minerality, beautiful sweet nose, bright white fruit, nice honey notes. The grapes for this wine come from volcanic soils, which gives it an interesting complexity, saving it from been “one singular note sweet bore”. It is not surprising that last year this wine was selected as “Best in Class” by Tom Stevenson in the UK in the sweet sparkling wines category. Another interesting fact is that in 2015, Maeli winery started Maeli Chef Cup competition, which will be now an annual event, where world-renown chefs compete to create the best dish pairing for Maeli Fior d’Arancia – if you are interested, here is the link detailing the 2015 competition.
Our next wine was NV Bisol Cartizze Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze D.O.C.G. Spumante Dry (11.5% ABV, SRP $42, Residual sugar 23 g/l, 100% Glera) – some sweetness on the nose, but body very restrained, creamy mouthfeel, delicious aftertaste, beautiful supple palate. The wine can age – Gianluca had an opportunity to taste 20 years old Bisol Cartizze wine – it retained bubbles, but obviously acquired aromas of more mature fruit. As you can see, this wine is designated as Superiore di Cartizze D.O.C.G – Cartizze is a single vineyard, 106 hectares (about 255 acres) in size , one of the best vineyards in Italy (most expensive for sure). 139 families own parcels of the Cartizze vineyard – Bisol family owns their parcel for 21 generations. The cost of land on Cartizze is $2.5M per hectare, or $1M per acre – not sure if anyone is selling though.
Time to eat something, right? The first two wines were paired with the selection of appetizers:
Suppli Cacio e Pepe (Risotto Croquettes, Pecorino, Black Pepper) – nice crust, tasty, works the best with the wine.
Bietole Ai Ferri (Plancha-seared Forono Beets, Ricotta, Hazelnuts) – good, nice flavor, good acidity, hazelnuts work well to complement the wines.
Nebrodini Arrostiti (Wood-fired Mushroom Salad, Kale, Mustard Greens, Thyme, Lemon) – nice, good flavor.
We continued our tasting with NV Bisol Crede Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore D.O.C.G. Spumante Brut (11.5% ABV, SRP $25, Residual sugar 7.5 g/l, blend of Glera, Pinot Bianco and Verdiso). “Crede” is a “type of clay-laden soil with particular characteristics that greatly benefit the grapes”, according to the wine’s tech sheet. The wine had delicious nose, touch of fruit, fine mousse, perfect acidity, crisp, clean finish.
Now we go back to Maeli with our next wine, which was also the only still wine we had in the tasting. 2014 Maeli Colli Euganei Bianco Infinito ∞ Veneto IGT (12.4% ABV, SRP $24, Yellow Muscat 60%, Chardonnay 40%, aged 5 month in steel tanks, 3 month in the bottle) had nice aromatics, touch of lemon on the nose, vanilla, nice complexity on the palate. The name of this wine (infinito) comes from the accident – one of the workers called Elisa to inform her that one of the barrels needs attention, and when she asked which one, he said “infinito”. As she couldn’t understand what the worker was talking about, it appeared that the number “8” was written on the barrel at an angle, and so from there on the wine took the name “infinito”.
Now, the dishes which were paired with these two wines deserve their own commendation. You see, I rarely eat pizza. When I do, my absolute preference is that the pizza would have crisp, crunchy, literally paper-thin crust. This is exactly what I got at Marta – three pizzas, one better than the other (Funghi was my absolute favorite):
Stracciatella (House-made Stracciatella, Basil, Olio Verde) – perfect pairing. Delicious pizza – very thin crust.
Funghi (Fontina, Mozzarella, Hen of the Woods, Hedgehogs, Red Onion, Thyme) incredible, amazing flavor mushrooms and thyme. Great pairing with Bianco Infinito
Porri e Pancetta (Leeks, Bacon, Fontina, Scallion) – great flavor, very good pairing.
Last three wines were truly special and unique – but none of them are available in the US at the moment, unfortunately. 2015 Private Cartizze Zero Dosage Brut Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze D.O.C.G. (second fermentation in the bottle, 12 month on the lees) – first Classic Method sparkling wine from Cartizze, 2015 vintage was bottled 45 days ago, 2011 was the first year of production, 3000 bottles produced in 2015 – classic champagne, yeast, outstanding.
Then we had 2011 Maeli Colli Euganei Rosévento IGT Spumante (12% ABV, Residual sugar 6.9 g/l, 100% Pinot Nero, 36 months on the lees) – another Classic method sparkling wine, yeasty, classic Rosè champagne nose with strawberries, delicious!
The last wine was truly unique – NV Jeio noSO2 Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Spumante Extra Brut (100% Glera) – this innovative wine was produced without any added sulphur dioxide (hence the name), made specially for the sensitive consumers. The wine is packaged in the clear bottle wrapped into the foil, to protect it from the sunlight (the wine we were tasting was brought by Gianluca directly from the winery, so it didn’t have any foil or labeling, except the small pieces of paper around the bottle’s neck. The wine had an amazing nose, floral with a touch of white fruit, very dry and again, floral on the palate – very unique compared to any sparkling wine I had before. Delicious – you need to try it for yourself (well, you might have to visit the winery for that).
Our last two dishes were Pollo Ubriaco (Chicken Breast, Charred Cabbage, Brussels Sprouts, Fresno Chili, Mint), perfectly executed, and Salmerino (Arctic Char, Crispy Potato Cake, Horseradish Crema) – delicious, potato cakes were outstanding ( I would eat the whole plate alone), and the fish was cooked perfectly.
That’s all I have for you, my friends – a wonderful encounter with passion, great people, unique wines and delicious food. Next time you are in a mood for some bubbles in your glass, Bisol and Maeli offer a great range, suitable for any palate and taste. And even if you are not craving pizza right now, go visit Marta in New York – I’m sure you will be happy. And by the way, feel free to ask your friends if they know when Prosecco was first sold in London – you might become a party star, at least for one night. Cheers!
at Martha Washington hotel
29 E 29th St
New York, NY 10016