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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!

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!