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Franciacorta: Unique, Different and Authentic

June 14, 2017 9 comments

“Sir, I will be very happy to work with you to improve the quality of your wines, but I have one request”, said young oenologist. “What is it?“ said Guido Berlucchi, the man famously known throughout the whole Franciacorta for his aristocratic, elegant lifestyle. “I would like to make Champagne here, in Franciacorta”.

The year was 1955, and young oenologist’s name was Franco Ziliani. Guido Berlucchi, while may be surprised, was not shy of taking the risk, and Franco Zeliani got to work. First vintages were a total disaster – awfully tasting wines, blown up bottles. But in 1961, the patience and perseverance paid off, and first 3000 bottles of the Franciacorta sparkling wine came into being.

Mr. Berlucchi invited his influential friends from Milan to try the wines, and they all happened to like it. The new chapter in the Franciacorta history was opened.

Map of Franciacorta

Map of Franciacorta region

The wine was produced in Franciacorta literally forever. The land surrounding Lake Iseo from the south was strategically located along the trade path between Turin and Rome. In the 11th century, the monks created a special zone called Curtefranca to encourage land development and commerce – “Curte” in this case represents “land”, and Franca, while sounds related to France, has nothing to do with it – it simply means “free of taxes” in Italian. The primary focus in Curtefranca was agriculture, and can you imagine agriculture in Italy without making the wine?

As the time went on, the Curtefranca became known as Franciacorta – however, the Curtefranca name didn’t disappear and since 2008 it is a designation for Franciacorta still wines.

That first 1961 vintage at Berlucchi became a turning point for the whole region which was before mostly known for its red still wines. Producers started changing their ways and make sparking wines, and Franciacorta DOC was established in 1967 with 11 sparkling wine producers. Franciacorta became first DOC in Italy to require all sparkling wines to be produced by the metodo classico. In 1990, the Consorzio per la tutela del Franciacorta was formed and became a major regulatory body for sparkling wine production; in 1995 Franciacorta was awarded a DOCG status, top level of quality for the Italian wines. Starting from August of 2003, Franciacorta became the only region in Italy where the wines can be labeled only as Franciacorta and not Franciacorta DOCG – similar to the Champagne where the word AOC doesn’t appear on the label.

If you are like me, I’m sure you are dying to hear a few more facts. Today, Franciacorta comprise about 7,500 acres of vineyards and produces about 15,000,000 bottles per year; there are about 200 grape growers in Franciacorta, 116 of them produce their own wines. 65% of all the vineyards are organic, and conversion to organic methods continues.

Franciacorta vineyards

Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc are the only permitted varieties in production of Franciacorta, with Pinot Blanc being somewhat of a bastard child, as the grape is even more finicky to properly produce than Pinot Noir – while some of the producers phasing it out (e.g. Berlucchi), the others love the perfumy bright character which the grape can impart on the resulting wines.

Franciacorta’s climate is very conducive to getting grapes ripen perfectly. The climate is generally mild, with consistently warm summer days. The Lake Iseo creates a cooling effect during the summer nights, helping grapes to reach the levels of phenolic ripeness which is very difficult to achieve (if not impossible) in the Champagne. During winter, the lake provides a softening effect, protecting vines from the very low temperatures.

Unquestionably Champagne was an inspiration for the ways and means of the Franciacorta sparkling wines – as expected if you use metodo classico production. However, Franciacorta is largely moving past the “Champagne copycat” status and actively seeks and creates its own unique style, not only by stricter aging requirements (both non-vintage and vintage Franciacorta must be aged on the lees for longer than the Champagne in the same category), but by the whole method of production – for instance, by using only stainless steel tanks for the fermentation or relying much less on blending and more on the quality of the grapes from the given vintage.

Franciacorta is obsessed with quality. It starts in the vineyard, where even if not certified, most of the grapes are growing as organic. New vines are often planted at a very high density, to force the roots to go deep down as they have no room to grow to the sides. The yield is well limited to about 4 tons per acre. All the grapes are harvested by hand (this is a requirement of Franciacorta DOCG). The grapes are cooled down before the pressing – and in the case of Ca’del Bosco, one of the premier producers in the region, the grapes are even washed and then dried, using specially created complex of the machines.

Getting the grapes into the winery is only the beginning of the quest for quality. We talked to many winemakers, and they were all repeating the same words – “gentle pressing”. There is a tremendous focus on gentle handling of the grapes, using various types of presses. Arturo Ziliani, the son of Franco Ziliani, who is in charge of winemaking at Berlucchi, gave us the best explanation. “Think about a lemon. Cut it, and right under the skin, you will see the white layer – pith. When you quickly juice the lemon, lots of that pith ends up in the juice, rendering it cloudy – and adding bitterness and extra acidity. If we would juice the lemon slowly without destroying the pith, the resulting juice would be clear – and lemonade would need a lot less sugar to make. While much thinner, grapes also have the layer of pith right under the skin – and when we press the grapes, we want to avoid crushing it as much as possible”.

Even gentle pressing alone is not enough. Franciacorta regulations allow up to 65% of grape mass to be pressed. Most of the winemakers press less, at around 50%, in some cases even limiting only by 30%. At all stages of the process, there is a great effort to protect grapes and wine from oxidation; such focused handling also allows to greatly reduce the levels of added SO2 – while the law allows up to 210 mg/liter, many winemakers limit it at only 50 mg/liter.

Official Franciacorta Glass

Obsession with the quality. Attention to detail. How do you drink your bubbles? The flute, you say? Where you ever able to perceive the full bouquet of your sparkling wine through that small opening on top of the flute? Well, leave the flute for Champagne, but if you want to enjoy Franciacorta, you will have to dump it (whatever way you see fit) and upgrade to something better – an official Franciacorta glass. It is specifically designed to enhance the visual and sensual qualities of your bubbles in the glass. The shape allows concentrating the aromas. And the glass is specifically made with the slight imperfections at the bottom to help form beautiful bubble traces better (perfectly polished glass doesn’t allow bubbles to form).

Glass of Franciacorta

Obsession with quality. Attention to detail. Passion. So what makes Franciacorta unique, different and authentic? It is all of the above. Franciacorta is a unique place, with its own terroir, its own ways of making the wines, and really its own, authentic sparkling wines. Franciacorta shouldn’t be compared to Champagne, for sure not anymore, not based on the tasting of 50 or so wines during our 5 days there. Well, maybe except one thing – similar to Champagne, it should be simply called by the name. You will make all hard working Franciacorta producers very happy next time at a restaurant, when you will have a reason to celebrate (and every new day is enough reason in itself), by simply saying “Waiter, please bring Franciacorta, the best one you got!”

Celebrate with Ferrari!

December 29, 2016 5 comments

Would anyone argue that holidays are better with Ferrari? Both of eponymous Italian hallmarks of quality would greatly enhance one’s holiday, but one of them – the car  – is a bit less accessible to the general populace, so let’s talk about the one which is – sparkling wine from a beautiful region in the Italian Alps – Trento.

More than 100 years ago, Guido Ferrari recognized the potential of the green slopes to grow world-class Chardonnay. While Chardonnay is an undisputed star of the still white wine, its swan song might be delivered best with the bubbles. Champagne comes only from Champagne, but Méthode Champenoise is successfully used around the world to produce sparkling wines easily rivaling Champagne in quality.

This is what Guido Ferrari set out to do in 1902 – produce world-class sparkling wines – the task which he completed successfully. As Guido Ferrari had no direct heirs, in 1952 he sold the winery and vineyards to the Bruno Lunelli, a friend and wine merchant. Now in the third generation, Lunelli family proudly continues Ferrari traditions into the 21st century.

Earlier in the year, I had a virtual conversation with Marcello Lunelli, a winemaker at the Ferrari winery – you can find that post here. Then during summer I had an opportunity to meet, talk to and taste the wines together with Camilla Lunelli, Managing Partner at Ferrari, who visited New York on the occasion of attending The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards ceremony, where Ferrari was sponsoring The Art of Hospitality Award (it went to Madison Eleven restaurant in New York city). As we combined conversation with the tasting of the wines, I want to share here my brief notes about both the winery and the wines we tasted.

Camilla Lunelli, Ferrari wines

Today Ferrari is producing about 2 million bottles per year. They are working in close cooperation with the network of 500 growers and employ 8 agronomists who work literally around the clock to ensure the quality of the grapes. All Ferrari vineyards are certified organic, which is something not to be taken lightly – think about the work required to convince 500 growers to change their ways, to adapt Best Practices developed by Ferrari and get certified (it took most of the growers between 3 and 5 years to change). Talking about the vineyards, an interesting side note: Trento is a mountainous region, and all Ferrari vineyards are located on the slopes which provide for large temperature shifts between day and night, which is significant for the development of the Chardonnay grapes.

Italy is the biggest market for Ferrari sparkling wines. However, when I asked which market is the next big one after Italy, I got a surprising answer – it is Japan! (Yeah, I knew it is not the US, as Ferrari wines are hard to find in the US stores).

I also asked what would be an interesting food pairing for the Ferrari sparklers, and Camilla recommended Rosé sparkling wine with Pizza (yes, I can see it) and then bubbles with the BBQ, which is something I will need to try.

Okay, let’s get to the wines now, shall we?

NV Ferrari Brut Metodo Classico Trento DOC (SRP $25, 100% Chardonnay) – Delicious. Perfect acidity, lightly yeasty, refreshing, clear acidic finish.

2007 Ferrari Perlé Metodo Classico Trento DOC (SRP $38, 100% Chardonnay) – complex nose, minerality, complex palate with musk undertones, full bodied and refreshing

2009 Ferrari Perlé Metodo Classico Trento DOC (SRP $38, 100% Chardonnay) – we didn’t taste this wine with Camilla – I recently got a sample of 2009, so it was a good opportunity to include it here. On the nose, fine fizz, mostly closed nose with just a touch of an apple. The palate showed toasted bread notes, restrained, good acidity, tart, very clean and austere. Perfectly reminiscent of a good Champagne, however, too astringent for my personal enjoyment. I would definitely prefer 2007.

2008 Ferrari Perlé Rosé Metodo Classico Trento DOC (SRP $59, 80% Pinot Noir, 20% Chardonnay) – Delicious nose, hint of strawberries, yeast, great concentration, complex, toasted bread, refreshing.

2008 Ferrari Perlé Nero Metodo Classico Trento DOC (SRP $79.99, 100% Pinot Nero) – great nose, plump, open, full-bodied, lots of fruit on the nose, fresh baguette, not just yeast or toasted bread, toasted caramel, butterscotch

2006 Ferrari Riserva Lunelli Metodo Classico Trento DOC (SRP $56, 100% Chardonnay) – the grapes for this wine come from the single area around Villa Margon. This wine is aged in neutral Austrian oak casks. Excellent, seriously complex nose, with a touch of tropical fruit; tremendous palate – roasted meat, super-complex, delicious.

2004 Ferrari Riserva del Fondatori Giulio Metodo Classico Trento DOC (SRP $120, 100% Chardonnay) – the grapes for this wine come from a single high altitude vineyard called Maso Panizza. The wine has the classic nose, great acidity, it just screams “classic vintage Champagne” all the way.

Here you are, my friends – a full range of beautiful sparkling wines, worthy of any celebration you will have. I wish they would be a bit easier to find in the US, but these are the wines worth seeking. 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!

 

Weekly Wine Quiz #114: Grape Trivia – Viura / Macabeo

September 13, 2014 3 comments
220px-Maccabeo_blanc

Viura/Macabeo grapes. Source:Wikipedia

The 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 your new wine quiz!

We are continuing our grape trivia series, and today’s subject is the white grape Viura, also known as Macabeo.

I know what you are thinking – we are going from “not so popular”, like we did with Müller-Thurgau and Pinot Blanc, to practically obscure. You probably want to say “I never heard of the grape and never had any wine made with it!”. Well, let’s see. Have you had any Cava, a sparkling wine from Spain, during the last summer? Macabeo is a part of the blend. How about white Rioja? If you actually never had white Rioja, you have to correct it as soon as possible (go on, run to the store, I will wait here). Look for Cvne Monopole Rioja (100% Viura), the oldest white wine in Spain, produced since 1915, or for any of the R. Lopez de Heredia whites, like Viña Tondonia or Viña Gravonia – those wines might change your view of the world forever (well, the wine world, of course). But – let’s get back to the grape itself.

Viura is the name of the grape used in Rioja (interesting fact: until 1975, there were more white wines produced in Rioja than the reds). The same grape is known in the rest of Spain as Macabeo, and as Macabeu and Maccabéo in Roussillon in France. Viura has a few interesting traits, which make it to stand out among others white grapes. First, it is considered to be resistant to Phylloxera, and it was widely planted in Spain after the Phylloxera devastation. It also can withstand oxidation better than many other grapes, which makes it a favorable variety for the prolonged barrel aging, where some exposure to oxygen is inevitable. At the same time, as Viura grows in the very tight clusters, it needs hot and dry climate to fully ripen, otherwise it is susceptible to mildew and rot – to get the best results the grape often requires extensive pruning and lots of attention in the vineyard. But – good white Rioja is a magnificent wine, with incredible aromatics and delicious bouquet, and can age and gain complexity for decades – it is well worth the trouble! In addition to white Rioja, Macabeo also plays main role in production of Cava, famous Spanish Sparkling wine. And we shouldn’t forget the Roussillon region in France – Macabeo is an important contributor to many different types of wines produced there.

And now, to the quiz!

Q1: Which one doesn’t belong and why:

a. Chardonnay

b. Sauvignon Blanc

c. Trebbiano

d. Verdejo

Q2: True or false: Viura is one of the 10 most planted white grapes in the world

Q3: Wine Spectator calls wines rated in 95-100 range Classic (the highest and the most prestigious category). True or False: there are no Viura/Macabeo-based wines rated in the Classic category

Q4: Which grape is missing: Chardonnay, Macabeo, Malvasia, …, Xarel-lo

Q5: Fill the gaps: If Macabeo is blended with Grenache Blanc and Malvasia, the resulting wine is most likely a ___from_____ ; if Macabeo is blended with Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris, the resulting wine probably a ___ from ___.

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

Wednesday’s Meritage – Wine Quiz Answer, Fake Wine Again? Noooo, US is #1!, Douro Greatness

May 14, 2014 4 comments
Krug Grand Cuvee Brut

Krug Grand Cuvee Brut

Meritage time!

Let’s start with the answer to the wine quiz #102, Grape Trivia – Blends, Part 6.

For the long time, the grape trivia series was focused on the single grapes. But now we are stirring things up, so all the questions in the quiz are about blends (well, even if it is a blend of one ), as most of the wines in the world are actually blends. This time, the focus of the quiz was on bubbles. As usual, there were 5 questions in the quiz.

Here are the questions, now with the answers:

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

A1: d, Crémant du Jura – According to Crémant du Jura AOC requirements, Crémant du Jura Blanc should be made with the minimum of 50% Chardonnay grapes.

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

A2: The right sequence is Franciacorta (18 month), Champagne and Trento (both 15 month), Cava (9 month)

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

A3: Most of the stuff surrounding Dom Pérignon is made for legends, but there is some level of consensus that he was the first person to perfect the art of blending, so the correct answer is d.

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

Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Mauzac

A4: Blanquette de Limoux in Languedoc is using all three grapes. Technically, it can be also a Crémant de Limoux – again, I should’ve phrased the question better to avoid a possible double-answer. Still learning.

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?

A5: As I said, this can be debatable, but my choice would be Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, also known as Madame Clicquot, who pioneered drier Champagne style and invented the riddling table, thus enabling commercial production of Champagne.

When it comes to the results, we had excellent participation and we have the winners! Gene Castellino (no web site), Jennifer Lewis (no web site) and Jeff the drunken cyclist all answered 5 questions correctly and thus they are the winners of this wine quiz round and get the prize of unlimited bragging rights! All of them also provided excellent, very detailed answers – very well done!

Now, to the interesting stuff around the vine and the web!

It is truly mind boggling to see the level of  wine fraud increasing together with the popularity of the wine in the world. Dr. Vino has a number of latest and greatest updates to support this “mind-boggliness”. First of all, you can learn that Kurniawan’s lawyers are trying to appeal his “guilty” verdict based on the facts that he loved wine and his victims were rich! I can’t even comment any further here, the level of absurdity is more than I can tolerate. Then Dr. Vino brings up the article in Decanter magazine, where you can find out about fake Bordeaux being made on the offshore boats in China. Lastly, another very recent development involves The White Club, an exclusive $25K membership outfit centered around luxurious and … fake wine! Again, for all the mind-boggling details, here is your link.

United States in #1 wine consuming country in the world! There is a good chance that you already read this, as this urgent news update is coming through all the wine-related news outlets, but in any case, according to just published data for 2013, United States is now the #1 wine consuming country in the world, by total volume (not per capita). It is also interesting that consumption in US increased, while the wine consumption in the world was down 1.7% in 2013. I will let you read all the detailed numbers on your own – here is an article from Jancis Robinson web site, and here is the one from Wine Spectator.

While everybody know Portugal as The Port Producer in the world, I think Portugal is actually the rising star in the world of the regular, non-fortified wine. I’m glad to see that I’m not alone, as Matt Kramer, probably my favorite wine writer, shared his excitement about Douro wines in his feature column in Wine Spectator. I wouldn’t help anyone by trying to recite what Matt Ktramer wrote about the Douro wines, so I would highly recommend you will read his article on your own – it is definitely worth your time. But I would gladly accept any comments you might be willing to share on the subject – please don’t be shy.

And we are done here. The glass is empty – but the refill is on its way! 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!

Trader Joe’s Wines Update

December 10, 2013 11 comments

Trader Joe's winesFew weeks ago, I wrote a post about noteworthy wine discoveries I made at Trader Joe’s store in California. As we visited our close friends in Boston for the Thanksgiving, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to explore the wine shelves at the nearby Trader Joe’s store, looking for great values. Once again, the mission was very successful – I can definitely recommend 3 wines out of 4 that I tried, which is an excellent outcome.

As we are now in the “holiday mood”, I’m trying to focus a bit more on the Sparkling wines of all sorts, so two out of four wines I want to present to you today are sparkling wines.

2012 Cecilia Beretta Brut Millesimato Prosecco Superiore Coneglian Valdobbiadene DOCG, Italy (11% ABV, $9.99) – I mentioned this wine already in my November “Month in Wines” update, so here are the same notes again – tiny refreshing bubbles, notes of fresh apple on the nose, round and roll-of-your-tongue on the palate with more of the fresh apple and yeast notes. Excelllent sparkling wine, and probably one of my very best in that price range. Drinkability: 8-

NV Trader Joe’s Reserve Brut Sparkling Wine, North Coast, California (12.5% ABV, $9.99, 62% Chardonnay, 26% Pinot Noir, 12% Semillon) – hint of fresh apples on the nose. Simple and clean on the palate, notes of white apples, good acidity. I would prefer a bit more substance in my glass (a bit heavier in the body and higher intensity of the bubbles), but this is definitely a very good wine for the money. Drinkability: 7+

2010 VINTJS Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast, California (13.5% ABV, $7.99) – I bought this wine based pretty much on the label alone – it looks very grand. Well, the content behind the label was not as grand as I would want it to be. Dark garnet color in the glass, dark fruit notes on the nose, hint of raspberries on the palate, medium to full body, good acidity – but no harmony, all the components where on their own. There are better choices at TJ’s at the same or lesser amount of money. Drinkability: 7-

2012 Marchigüe Carménère Reserva D.O. Colchagua Valley, Chile (13.5% ABV, $8.99) – quite honestly, I was craving Carménère for a past few month (I have none in my fridge), so when I saw this wine at the Trader Joe’s, it was an instant “yesss” decision. This is a very young wine for what it is, so if you want to enjoy it right away, I recommend decanting it – it needs to open up for at least 30 minutes to an hour. Dark ruby color in the glass. Perfect herbaceous hue on the nose – a hint of mint, so characteristic for the good Carménère. Sweet mint on the palate, cassis, a touch a eucalyptus, ripe raspberries, silky smooth texture, full body, excellent acidity and overall very balanced. This wine is definitely highly recommended. Drinkability: 8-

Here are all the wines I presented to you, now in pictures:

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Note: the same wines might have different prices in the different states. The prices mentioned above are all from the Trader Joe’s store in Massachusetts.

If you tasted or will taste any of these wines, let me know if you like them! 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…

Wine Video: My Personal Sabering Experiment

June 28, 2012 7 comments

If you remember my Father’s day post, I mentioned successful experiment in Sabering of the Champagne bottle. Okay, not really a Champagne – it was Cava Rose ( a very tasty one, Marques de Gelida Cava Brut Reserva). As I promised, here is the video for you:

To tell you the truth, once you open a sparkler this way, it is hard to go back to the traditional bottle twisting…

So…yes, you can try it at home! Have fun! Cheers!