France – Champagne

Top 10 Wines Of 2012

22 December 2012

It's raining wine (glasses)!As when I wrote the previous Top 10 post about spirits and cocktails, compiling this list filled me with a sense of gratitude. What fortune, to have tasted so many fascinating and unusual wines this past year!

The title of this post is a bit misleading, however. I certainly won’t pretend to claim to know what the “best” wines of the year were. Instead, this rather idiosyncratic list highlights the wines I thought were the most exciting, whether it was because of superlative quality, unusual grape variety or off-the-beaten-track vineyard sites.

If this list demonstrates one thing, it’s that there’s a whole world of delicious unusual wine out there, and it’s bigger than even I imagined. There’s never been a better time to take a risk on something off the wall.

Links lead to the original posts about the wines:

10. MEXICAN WINE — Perhaps the most surprising discovery of the year, the Mexican wines I tasted proved to be refined and satisfying. There wasn’t a stinker in the bunch! One representative wine is the 2011 Monte Xanic Chenin Colombard, a blend of 98% Chenin Blanc and 2% Colombard. This wine from Baja started with lush, white, almost tropical fruit. It had a spicy midsection with some grapefruity acids and a slightly chalky finish. Quite delicious, and excellent with some duck carnitas tacos.

9. 2010 PAGE SPRINGS CELLARS “LA SERRANA” — Wine from Arizona surprised me as much as that from Mexico. But the Mediterranean terroir there seems to work quite well for certain varieties, especially those usually associated with the Rhône. This blend of 50% Viognier and 50% Rousanne had a nutty, almost buttery aroma, and it certainly tasted rich and creamy. But it was fruity as well, and ample acids kept the wine light on its feet.

8. AUSTRIAN ST. LAURENT — It can be hard to find, but this sexy, earthy red will reward the hunt. The single-vineyard 2007 Johanneshof Reinisch “Holzspur” Grand Reserve St. Laurent is a fine example. A brick red, the Holzspur sucked me in with a dusky nose of very dark fruit. It had a medium body, powerful spice, big fruit and a long finish. It’s Eartha Kitt in a bottle.

7. PESSAC-LÉOGNAN — A mere 650 acres are devoted to white grapes in this highly regarded but little-known corner of Bordeaux, producing some positively sumptuous wines. My favorite was the 2005 Château Malartic-Lagravière “Le Sillage de Malartic”, a 100% Sauvignon Blanc. On the nose were voluptuously ripe peaches, and tropical fruit worked its way into the palate. Some minerals kept things grounded, as did a rather woody finish. A joy to drink.

6. NV MICHEL TURGY RÉSERVE-SÉLECTION BLANC-DE-BLANC BRUT CHAMPAGNE — Champagne can hardly be classified as an obscure beverage, but it is all too unusual in my household. I had been saving this bottle of grower Champagne (made by the same person/company which owns the vineyards, in contrast to the vast majority of Champagnes on the market) for a special occasion, and it rose to the moment. The elegantly tiny bubbles felt delicate on the tongue, and the lively acids hinted at by the appley nose balanced the rich flavors of caramel corn and a bit of toast. And the finish! Nearly endless.

Brian at Keswick Vineyards5. 2010 KESWICK VINEYARDS MERLOT — Virginia boasts an array of fine wineries these days, and Keswick Vineyards is one of the very best. Most of Keswick’s production gets sucked up by its wine club, meaning that you either have to join the club or visit the winery. It’s worth the effort. The Merlot had a beautiful nose that reminded me of when I used to spread raspberry jam and Nutella on toasted rolls. On the palate, it was voluptuous but well-structured — like a 40-something Sophia Loren.

4. 2004 CHÂTEAU FLUTEAU CUVÉE PRESTIGE BLANC DE BLANCS — The only thing more unusual than a grower Champagne is a vintage grower Champagne. This example, made in part by a Chicago native, had nose-catching aromas of lime, peach and yeast . On the palate, it moved from popcorn to tart apple to a whisper of limestone on the finish. The ample bubbles felt very fine, delicate and elegant, and there was some real depth there as well. As it breathed, the Fluteau mellowed, becoming even richer.

3. RARE WINE COMPANY “MALMSEY” SPECIAL RESERVE MADEIRA — Madeira, a fortified wine produced on the tiny Atlantic island of the same name, tends to appear with dessert, if at all. But at Stella! in New Orleans, the creative sommelier paired it with some crispy veal sweetbreads with andouille sausage, turnips and egg yolk. Good heavens, what a marvelous pairing! The Madeira smelled rich and woodsy, with some wheat toast in there as well. It tasted predictably sweet and caramelly, but startlingly bright acids kicked in on the finish, ensuring that it would be food friendly. It complemented the delicate sweetbreads but stood up to the andouille and turnips as well. Quite the balancing act! I don’t often write “Wow!” in my notebook, but write it I did.

2. 2006 CHÂTEAU CHEVAL BLANC — You could be forgiven for wondering why something from one of the most celebrated wineries on the planet makes an appearance on a blog “dedicated to drinking the unusual and obscure.” Well I don’t know about you, but it’s pretty unusual for me to sample a $1,035 bottle of wine. I tried it in a wine bar in the city of Bordeaux, near where it’s made, and though it’s still very young, it tasted dazzling. It had a chocolatey nose, and a more open character than the other Bordeaux First Growths I sampled. It felt racier — sexier — with voluptuous fruit corseted by strong tannins.

1. 2010 SATTLERHOF TROCKENBEERENAUSLESE — Crafted from Sauvignon Blanc fruit affected by Noble Rot, which concentrates the flavors and sugars, this Austrian beauty blew me away. If you don’t like sweet wines, this one might just change your mind. A deeply golden hue, it had rich fruit and a lush, luxurious sweetness balanced — perfectly, beautifully, improbably — by a veritable kick line of acids. Sheer, unadulterated delight.

A Little Chicago In The Fluteau

6 June 2012

Although drinking Champagne (from France, with a capital “C”) is all too unusual in my household, the beverage itself could hardly be considered obscure. Everyone has heard of it, and I’m pretty sure anyone reading these words likes to drink it. But even Champagne has its odd side.

Most Champagnes we encounter in the United States tend to be non-vintage, brut (dry but not austere), and Négociant Manipulant (basically, sourced from a range of different vineyards in the region). I always like to seek out the more terroir-influenced Récoltant Manipulant Champagnes, otherwise known as grower Champagnes. You can tell the difference by looking at the tiny serial number on the label, which will say NM or RM, or, rarely, any of five other letter combinations. It’s France; they like their wine complicated.

In any case, while shopping at Binny’s for a sparkling wine to use for our wedding toast last year, I came across a most tempting bottle of 2004 Château Fluteau Cuvée Prestige Blanc de Blancs. My Odd Bacchus sensors lit up like a Feuerzangenbowle — here was a vintage Champagne that was also grower. And that wasn’t all: 2004 is the year my partner (now husband) and I met! It was too romantic and too unusual to pass up.

When I researched the wine, I learned that it had yet more wonderfully unusual qualities. (more…)

A Grand Cru Beginning

4 January 2012

It’s all too easy to let a special bottle languish in the wine rack, collecting dust for years, waiting for just the right special moment. And as that special bottle grows older, so too grows the amount of specialness a moment requires to justify opening it. It’s a specialness feedback loop which frequently ends in the slow, quiet death of the wine.

This loop can be all the more deadly when you lack a reliably cool cellar, as I do, and your wine suffers significant temperature fluctuations. One of my personal New Year’s resolutions, therefore, is to work my way through a substantial number of my “too special to open” wines.

I opened my first special bottle on New Year’s Eve, a good time to start work on my recommended resolution of drinking more sparkling wine. A golden-labeled bottle of non-vintage (NV) Michel Turgy Réserve-Sélection Blanc-de-Blanc Brut Champagne had provided a frisson of grandeur to my wine rack for years, but the “Sam’s Wines” sticker on the back indicated it had been too many (Sam’s Wines was unfortunately bought out by Binny’s in 2009). I hoped it wasn’t already too late.

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Finding An Odd Champagne

17 December 2011

To be perfectly honest, I would have loved to have been able to write one of those articles comparing Champagnes, declaring that yes, the 2002 Dom Perignon really is worth $125, but the 1996 only gives you about $300 of flavor, so it’s not worth the $400 price tag. But times and budgets being what they are, a simpler blog post will have to suffice.

While there’s nothing unusual about drinking Champagne on New Year’s Eve, it is possible to find an unusual Champagne to drink. While lately I’ve been doing most of my wine shopping at my favorite neighborhood shop, In Fine Spirits, their Champagne selection is small. To find an unusual Champagne within my budget — that’s with a capital “C” from the Champagne region of France — I take advantage of the large selection at Binny’s.

Unfortunately, the last time I sought an unusual Champagne at Binny’s, the wine consultant steered me towards a Moët & Chandon that was on sale (you can read more about that interaction here). When I asked for a recommendation of a Grower Champagne, he had no idea what I was talking about. I don’t want you to be on your own, as I was, in your hunt for an exciting, unusual Champagne to try. As long as you have good reading glasses, your quest should actually be relatively easy to complete.

My experience at Binny’s notwithstanding, it’s always worth asking a wine store employee for a recommendation first. Let him or her know what your budget is, and ask the wine consultant to recommend a Grower Champagne. These wines are produced by vineyard owners exclusively from the fruit of their specific vineyards. Many therefore regard grower Champagnes to be more terroir-focused than Champagnes from larger houses, which purchase fruit from across the entire Champagne region to ensure a consistent style from year to year.

And herein lies the dilemma for the Champagne consumer: To go with tried-and-true large houses which maintain a consistent flavor profile, or risk a Grower Champagne with more local character but sourced from vineyards of perhaps unknown quality. The French consume great quantities of both, but here in the U.S., there is no contest. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, grower Champagnes accounted for only 3% of the market as of late 2008.

With such a small market share, it would be no surprise if you encounter a wine consultant who has no idea what Grower Champagnes even are, let alone which ones offer the best value. Here’s when the reading glasses come in handy. Most Grower Champagnes are labeled as such, but none will actually say “Grower Champagne.” Why would the French want to make it easy on us Americans?

Instead, you need to look for the serial number of the bottle, usually printed in a ridiculously small font. This number can be on the front or back label, so you may have to hunt for it. Once you find the serial number, note the letter or letters in front of it. Most commonly, you’ll see “NM”, which stands for Négociant-Manipulant, meaning the fruit for this Champagne was sourced from any number of vineyards around the Champagne region. This is not a bad thing — plenty of excellent Champagnes are labeled NM — but it’s not what we’re looking for.

If you’re lucky, some of the Champagnes will be labeled “RM”, which stands for Récoltant-Manipulant. These are the Grower Champagnes, made from specific vineyards. In the photo above, you can see the label of this Champagne also indicates the village from which it came: Mesnil sur Oger, one of the region’s Grand Cru villages, which have (theoretically) the very highest-quality grapes.

You might also see other letters. “CM” stands for Coopérative-Maipulant, designating a Champagne produced by a cooperative of growers (see photo below). Champagne can be marked with yet other letter combinations, such as RC, SR, MA, R and ND, but I’ve only very rarely encountered any of them.

If your wine consultant tries to convince you that RM Champagnes are surely much more expensive than the famous brands, don’t believe it. Like NM Champagnes, RM Champagnes come in a wide range of prices. Get out the magnifying glass — they’re worth the hunt.

Next, Part 2: Next

5 July 2011

…With expectations shooting high enough to punch a hole in the ozone layer, we passed through the vestibule connecting The Aviary to Next and entered the restaurant. Our chairs pulled ceremonially from the table, we settled into two of the most coveted seats in American restaurantdom and took in the scene.

A latticed appliqué covered the front windows, focusing all attention within, and a length of Eiffelesque metal undulated along the ceiling. Braced by ribs arcing to the walls, it looked like the spine of some steampunk cetacean. Above that, thick metal disks punctured by glowing circles of glass evoked manhole covers.

Beneath the industrial-age whale spine and sewer-chic light fixtures, luxury reigned, with padded silvery walls, immaculate table linens and gold-rimmed china plates. If you’ve ever fancied a seven-course gourmet meal in subterranean Paris, this is the place for you.

The expense may give you pause, but that’s the least of your worries. Securing reservations at one of the most talked-about restaurants in the country can be tricky. To get in, you must buy tickets through Next’s website, as if you were attending an opera or, more accurately, a blockbuster rock concert.

According to Next’s Facebook page, they received 1,000,000 hits on their website within an eight-day period, and tables are available on the website for an average of one second. It goes on to estimate that about 3,400 people compete for the restaurant’s 16 tables — 16 tables — each day new reservations are released.

If you’re lucky enough to obtain tickets, they already include the meal, tax and gratuity in the price (as well as the wine pairing, if you so choose). No money is exchanged at the restaurant, and the tickets are non-refundable.

I feel somewhat awkward about describing the rest of our experience, because we dined at Next the very last evening they were serving the “Paris, 1906 — Escoffier at the Ritz” menu, composed of recipes from Auguste Escoffier’s monumental Le Guide Culinaire, the bedrock of classic French cuisine. Grant Achatz and his team are currently fine-tuning a new Thai menu, with the first practice dinner reportedly happening tonight (July 5).

I’ll describe the experience of “Paris 1906″ nevertheless, as a record of the event and as an example of the kind of experience you can expect at Next. And goodness knows, if you want that experience, start working on getting tickets as soon as you can.

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