France – Champagne

The Best Wines I Drank In 2015: White & Sparkling

14 January 2016

Barone Pizzini Saten and La Valle NaturalisFor this idiosyncratic list, I chose whites that surprised me one way or another, and whites that exhibited impressive balance. When a wine’s fruit, acids and other flavors are tautly in sync, it can be an absolutely thrilling experience. Don’t settle for white wines that are simply innocuous and bland. There are too many beautifully lively bottles out there to waste your time with anything that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice.

The wines below represent a tiny taste of what’s out there beyond the giant industrial-sized brands found in every grocery store. These are wines with heart. They have to be, since most of the companies making these wines have minimal marketing budgets.

You won’t find all of these particular wines with ease, but if you see one that sounds particularly enticing, bring the description to your local wine shop and ask for something similar. A good wine clerk will send you in the right direction.

And now, in alphabetical order, the 13 most memorable white wines I tried in 2015:

 

2011 BARONE PIZZINI SATÈN FRANCIACORTA

Franciacorta reserves the “Satèn” designation  for 100% Chardonnay wines (blanc de blancs) that have spent a minimum of 24 months aging on the lees. Barone Pizzini aged this Satèn between 30 and 40 months, giving this organic wine time to develop additional complexity. It had a nose of green apple and vanilla with a bit of toast, and I loved its classy bubbles, lemony acids and juicy, appley fruit.

 

Crociani Vin Santo di Montepulciano

2009 CROCIANI VIN SANTO DI MONTEPULCIANO

The World Atlas of Wine calls Vin Santo “the forgotten luxury of many parts of Italy, Tuscany above all,” and with good reason. This example had an enticing aroma of taut, dark honey and wonderfully complex flavors: dates, figs, orange peel, walnuts. It had evident concentration, feeling rich until the finish, which took a wonderfully surprising turn towards dry, bright freshness.

 

2011 DOMAINE CHRISTIAN MOREAU PÈRE ET FILS VALMUR GRAND CRU

TheWorld Atlas of Wine also has high praise for Chablis from the Valmur vineyard, calling it “some critics’ ideal: rich and fragrant.” I’m certainly not one to disagree with the Atlas — this wine was an absolute joy. It had a spicy aroma marked by notes of popcorn. Some Chablis can be almost austere, but this Grand Cru had real richness. With sublime balance, it started ripe and round and then focused into taut laser beam of white-pepper spice.

 

The personable Steven Fulkerson, holding a bottle of his bright and fruity Pinot Noir/Dornfelder rosé

The personable Steven Fulkerson, holding a bottle of his bright and fruity Pinot Noir/Dornfelder rosé

2013 FULKERSON ESTATE SEMI-DRY RIESLING

The words “semi-dry” strike fear into the hearts of many a sugar-phobic wine drinker, but there’s nothing to be afraid of in this case. An attractive green-gold color, this Finger Lakes Riesling had a ripe and full aroma, and lush fruit perfectly balanced by orangey acids and gingery spice. Languid and very pretty.

 

2012 MITCHELTON CENTRAL VICTORIA MARSANNE

Marsanne, a traditional Rhône white grape variety, doesn’t ordinarily spring to mind when one thinks of Australian wine. But perhaps it should — this example from Central Victoria, Australia’s southeasternmost state aside from Tasmania, had a delightfully fresh aroma of pear, and it tasted rather sexy, I must say. Delicious roasted peach fruit moved to a little wood and some dusky spice, and the finish lasted quite some time. A most pleasant surprise.

 

NV PIPER HEIDSIECK BRUT

Piper-Heidsieck BrutThis Champagne activated all my sparkling-wine pleasure centers: It had a wonderfully yeasty aroma with some underlying freshness, rich flavors of toast and almond balanced by bright acids, and, of course, exquisitely fine bubbles. You may not feel very surprised to learn that a Champagne is delicious, especially one coming from a relatively well-known brand. What is surprising is the huge disparity between this richly flavorful Champagne (priced at about $40 a bottle) and the underwhelming but nevertheless ubiquitous Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label (priced at about $37  bottle). Those three extra dollars buy you a giant leap in character.

 

2013 PODERE CANNETA VERNACCIA DI SAN GIMIGNANO RISERVA “LA LUNA E LE TORRE”

Most Vernaccia di San Gimignano (a Tuscan white) doesn’t see any time in oak, resulting in cheerful, fruity and spicy wines that tend to go well with food. But the “riserva” wines, which age for a spell in new oak barrels, achieve another level entirely. This example, a blend of 85% Vernaccia di San Gimignano and 15% Sauvignon Blanc, spent a year in used oak barrels aging on the lees, adding to its complexity. It had an appealing aroma of lime and popcorn, and flavors of creamy white fruit and pie crust. It felt beautifully balanced, with supple acids and a bit of minerality.

 

2014 QUINTA DO CASAL MONTEIRO “MARGARIDE’S”

This blend of 50% Chardonnay and 50% Arinto from Portugal’s Tejo region paired wonderfully with some savory Parmesan crisps. I enjoyed its rich, dusky aroma marked by a touch of creaminess, and its focused peachy fruit and orange-peel acids. A fellow taster also detected “almost a lychee note.” Unique and delicious, and it’s a sensational value at $12.

 

The author and Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe in the Schloss Proschwitz vineyards overlooking Meissen

The author and Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe in the Schloss Proschwitz vineyards overlooking Meissen

2013 SCHLOSS PROSCHWITZ WEISSBURGUNDER GROSSES GEWÄCHS

I had already tasted a number of excellent wines with the Prinzessin zur Lippe, owner of Schloss Proschwitz in Germany’s little-known Sachsen region. But when we reached the 2013 Weissburgunder Grosses Gewächs, the Prinzessin became concerned. When I smelled this Pinot Blanc, I let out a laugh and a whoop and said “Yeah!” just a little too loudly. Her eyes widened, and she asked the woman behind the desk to bring bread.

“We’ll be having lunch soon…” she said, clearly convinced I was drunk (I was not). This wine, quite simply, was great. I would have guessed it was a white Burgundy, not a Pinot Blanc. The aroma had such richness, with ripe fruit and fresh butter and wood. And the flavor! Drinking it was like driving in a car with an expert at manual transmission — it shifted with incredible suppleness from ripe, ripe fruit to classy acids to focused spice. What a gorgeous, elegant wine.

 

Szigeti Gruner Veltliner BrutNV SZIGETI GRÜNER VELTLINER BRUT

I hadn’t planned on taking any tasting notes during the vacation when I tried this sparkling wine from Austria, but it proved to be so delicious I couldn’t resist. I loved its creamy, citrusy aroma, reminiscent of a dreamsicle. The elegantly fine, foamy bubbles were a testament to Szigeti’s successful use of bottle fermentation. It had ample fruit and a pleasant powdered candy note, all balanced by soft limey acids. It stood up well to some turkey, but it also would make a fine aperitif all on its own.

 

2012 TERLANER VORBERG PINOT BIANCO

As I tasted this wine, Casey Squire, division manager of Banville Wine Merchants, told me that “The hallmark of Terlano wines is their ageability,” and went on to relate how he once tried a 1955 Terlaner Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc) that still retained some acidity and freshness. I’m not sure I’d hold this wine from the Vorberg section of Italy’s Alto Adige region that long, but who knows? It smelled of subtle spice and herbs and mellow white fruit, and the mouthfeel felt rich and full. Voluptuous fruit quickly gave way to tight, limey acids which moved into paprika-like spice. The wine was big and lively, but it held together firmly and exhibited great balance.

 

The tasting room at Vina Cobos

The tasting room at Viña Cobos

2013 VIÑA COBOS “BRAMARE” MARCHIORI VINEYARD CHARDONNAY

This single-vineyard Chardonnay from Mendoza had a very spicy aroma marked by dried herbs, belying the rich fruit I tasted. I also detected some vanilla and even a note of light caramel, but in spite of all this richness, bright acids kept the wine perfectly in balance. I liked it so much, I ended up buying a bottle for my boss for Christmas.

 

2013 WAGNER VINEYARDS RIESLING ICE WINE

When I tasted this beautiful Finger Lakes wine, I wrote in my notebook, “If you think you don’t like sweet wines, try this!!” I loved it from start to finish. It had an enticingly spicy and rich aroma, and sumptuously rich fruit leavened by surprisingly zesty grapefruity acids and warm cinnamon spice. Sheer delight.

Up Next: My favorite reds of 2015.

Franciacorta: Italy’s Answer To Champagne

28 December 2015

Barone Pizzini Saten and La Valle NaturalisAs we approach New Year’s Eve, thoughts turn inevitably to sparkling wine. The holiday is practically synonymous with Champagne, and it’s the only holiday, alas, during which you’re virtually guaranteed to have plenty of bubbly with which to celebrate. (If you’re looking for a good New Year’s Resolution, I suggest vowing to celebrate every holiday with sparkling wine. Those who truly care about the environment, for example, would surely agree that Arbor Day merits a glass of Champagne as much as New Year’s Eve.)

Recently I was offered a sample of high-end Franciacorta, Italy’s best sparkling wine, crafted in a method similar to Champagne. I hesitated at first, since I had written a post about Franciacorta not so long ago. But I reconsidered and accepted the samples, because the offer came to me just after one of my favorite wine-tasting friends shared a beautiful bottle of Piper-Heidsieck Brut. This Champagne activated all my sparkling-wine pleasure centers: It had a wonderfully yeasty aroma with some underlying freshness, rich flavors of toast and almond balanced by bright acids, and, of course, exquisitely fine bubbles.

Piper-Heidsieck BrutI loved this wine, which can be had for $40 a bottle (it’s a far better value than the ubiquitous and rather underwhelming Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label at $37 a bottle). After feeling so thoroughly seduced by the Piper-Heidsieck, I wondered if these Franciacorta sparklers, which ranged from $45 to $55 a bottle, would compete in the same league. At that price point, they should display sharp focus, perfect balance, notable character and elegant bubbles. I invited five friends over, whipped up some Käsespätzle with melted leeks, and got to the happy work of tasting the wines.

1) 2011 Barone Pizzini Satèn: Franciacorta reserves the “Satèn” designation  for 100% Chardonnay wines (blanc de blancs) that have spent a minimum of 24 months aging on the lees (dead yeast cells, grape skin fragments and other solid bits left over from winemaking). Barone Pizzini aged this Satèn between 30 and 40 months, theoretically developing even more complexity. This organic wine proved very popular with the group. “This is delicious and very easy to drink,” remarked Adam, who also liked its crispness. Patti astutely noted, “It’s like when you bite into a granny smith apple.” I also got some green apple on the nose, along with vanilla and a bit of toast. I loved the very classy bubbles, lemony acids and juicy, appley fruit. ($45)

La Valle Brut Rose2) 2011 La Valle Rosé Brut: The vintage on this bottle inexplicably appears only in small font on the back label. If I had a vintage sparkling rosé, I’d want to shout it from the rooftops. This very pretty wine also delighted the group, including me. In order to preserve the character of the grapes as much as possible, this blend of 55% Chardonnay and 45% Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) fermented in stainless steel and again in the bottle, without spending any time in oak. Like the Barone Pizzini Satèn, this wine spent a significant time aging on the lees, a minimum of 24 months in this case. It had a fresh and light (some in the group argued “undetectable”) strawberry aroma. It had ample watermelony fruit but it felt dry, with rich orangey acids and some chalk on the finish. The bubbles were tiny but forceful, with a “more celebratory feel” according to one fellow taster. A very romantic sparkling rosé that paired deliciously with some asparagus wrapped in crisped prosciutto. ($55)

La Valle Rose and Barone Pizzini Rose3) 2011 Barone Pizzini Rosé: This 100% Pinot Noir comes from organic vineyards abutting a forest, which “maintains cool temperatures throughout hotter days of the growing season,” according to the distributor’s fact sheet. It, too, spends 30 to 40 months aging on the lees, but the character of its bubbles made it feel less serious and more fun than La Valle’s rosé. “It’s so bubbly that it melts in my mouth,” Scott reported. “It turns to air!” He was right — on the finish, the ethereal bubbles frothed and evaporated, leaving the palate clean for the next sip. It was a surprising end for a wine that started with ripe berry flavors and dusky orange acids. “I feel like #3 is more extroverted,” Cornelia noted, “but it’s kind of garrulous.” I found this wine to be charming, but then I have no shortage of garrulous friends. ($45)

4) 2009 La Valle “Naturalis” Extra Brut: I saved the most sophisticated wine for last, which was perhaps an error, since the other wines had more residual sugar. La Valle gives this blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir nowhere to hide, aging it in stainless steel (wood can smooth over certain problems) and adding minimal sugar in the dosage (sweetness also helps cover flaws). The winemaking has to be just about perfect if you’re going to attempt a wine like “Naturalis.” And such a wine won’t be popular with everyone; one taster complained of a slight bitter undertone, and she wasn’t wrong. I found this wine exciting to drink, with its zesty acids, pin-prick bubbles and flavors of tart apple and unripe pear. It mellowed when paired with the Käsespätzle, becoming rounder and less austere. If you’re meeting up with some wine geeks and need something to pair with dinner, this is your bottle. But Cornelia said it best: “This is the wine I should be dating — it’s the most emotionally healthy — but I’ll probably end up with #1.” ($55)

This tasting was a pleasure, to be sure. The rosé Franciacortas both could compete with a fine rosé Champagne, and if you seek a romantic sparkler to impress a date — especially a date who knows something about wine — a rosé Franciacorta would be an excellent choice.

The Satèn impressed me with its beautiful balance and perfect bubbles, and the “Naturalis” excited me in the manner of a tightrope walker performing without a net. If I have $45 to $55 to spend on a sparkler, will I purchase one of them? They’re certainly worth the money. But I’m such a sucker for toasty richness, it’s still the Piper-Heidsieck that has me in its grip.

Note: All the wines described in this post were provided free of charge.

Celebrating The SCOTUS Marriage Decision

26 June 2015
After our ceremony, my new mother-in-law presented us with Bert and Ernie dolls.

After our ceremony, my new mother-in-law presented us with Bert and Ernie dolls.

It’s not every day that the Supreme Court hands down a ruling so fully and dramatically in support of human rights. This ruling striking down laws banning same-sex marriage is truly historic. It will change the lives of millions of people, who, in at least one respect, lived as second-class citizens of the United States.

That calls for a first-class celebration. I recommend heading straight to your city’s largest gay bar after work, where the mood will doubtless be more than usually festive. And what the heck, order a Cosmopolitan. Yes, it’s terribly dated, but it’s about as gay as cocktails get, and it remains as delicious as ever when properly made: decent vodka, triple sec or Grand Marnier, cranberry juice and fresh lime — not Rose’s or sour mix.

If you prefer to have a party rather than going to a bar — and let’s face it, that’s exactly what most of us married folk prefer — it’s time to pull out all the stops.

PARTY #1: FRUGAL BUT FABULOUS

–Aperitif: Campari and club soda, served in a highball and garnished with lime. It’s refreshing, it’s pink, and you only need to add a little Campari to each glass, making it inexpensive to mix a lot of these. If you aren’t expecting a mob, opt for a slightly more complicated Gaspare: 4 parts club soda, 1/2 part fresh-squeezed lime juice (do not use bottled), 1/4 part simple syrup (1 part sugar dissolved in 1 part water), 1 part Campari.

–First Course: Evolúció Furmint. Chicago’s biggest wine shop, Binny’s, sells this exotic Hungarian wine for just $9 a bottle, and you get a lot of flavor bang for your buck. If you can’t find it, consider instead a Torrontés from Argentina, ideally from around Salta. Typically bright with tropical fruit and flowers but still very dry, a good Torrontés can be had for $10 or $12 per bottle.

–Second Course: A Portuguese red blend. Red wines from Portugal tend to be excellent values because most of us can’t even pronounce the indigenous grape varieties, let alone tell you what they taste like. Furthermore, Portugal tends to be overshadowed by its much more famous neighbor, the land of Rioja and Cava. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find a ripely fruity and dry Portuguese red for around $10 or $12. Be sure to serve your red wine at cellar temperature — put it in the fridge for a little while if necessary.

–Dessert: Death’s Door Wondermint. This spirit is essentially a peppermint schnapps, but it tastes much more elegant and complex than you might expect because of ingredients such as rose water and bitter almond. It costs around $23 a bottle, but because it’s strong, a little goes a long way. Chill well, and serve in a cordial glass with a chocolate dessert or vanilla ice cream.

PARTY #2: MID-RANGE BUT NOT MEDIOCRE

–Aperitif: Kir Royale. This simple French drink never fails to start a party off right. Traditionally a Kir Royale has a base of Crémant de Bourgogne, but any good dry sparkling wine will do. A decent Prosecco or a quality Cava would work quite well. Add sparkling wine to a flute and top up with a dash of Crème de Cassis, a blackcurrant liqueur.

–First Course: A single-vineyard Riesling from the Pfalz or the Mosel Valley (Mosels tend to be easier to find). You can expect rich fruit matched by lively acids and steely nerve, and all for around $25 to $30. Another delightful alternative would be Savennières from the Loire. Sancerre gets all the attention, which means Savennières tends to be a value for the money. You should be able to find one for about $25.

–Second Course: Something innovative would seem to be in order here. Perhaps a powerful Syrah from Chile. No longer dedicated just to the cheap stuff, Chile has ideal terroir for fine wine, the full potential of which vintners are now truly beginning to exploit. Single-vineyard wines are becoming more and more common here, as well as in neighboring Argentina. A high-quality Austrian St. Laurent would be a delicious alternative, if you can find one.

–Dessert: Ron Zacapa Centenario Sistema Solera 23. This beautiful rum from Guatemala contains spirits ranging in age from six to 23 years. It tastes wonderfully smooth and rich, and it’s a perfect way to end a meal. Zacapa recommends serving it with a single large lump of ice, which I prefer in the summer. But it works equally well neat, should your guests prefer it that way. You should be able to find it for around $50 to $60 a bottle.

PARTY #3: DAMN THE TORPEDOES

–Aperitif: Time for Champagne with a capital “C”. Go for a Grower Champagne, produced by the people who grew the grapes (most Champagnes blend grapes from across the region). You can identify a Grower by the letters “RM,” usually written in the tiniest font possible on the label, as opposed to “NM”, the designation on most other Champagnes.

Alicante Bouschet from the now-defunct Rainbow Ridge winery

Alicante Bouschet from the now-defunct Rainbow Ridge winery

–First Course: The obvious choice would be white Burgundy, and I certainly won’t argue if you want to pour me a glass. For something a little more unusual, opt instead for a white Pessac-Léognan from Bordeaux, redolent of lush tropical fruit. Or a Grosses Gewächs (Great Growth) Riesling would also surely impress the fussiest of guests.

–Second Course: A Bordeaux winemaker once told me that he doesn’t spend more than €100 (about $115) on a bottle of wine, because anything more is just for show. Keeping that advice in mind, I’d recommend a Brunello di Montalcino (Poggione makes some exquisite ones), or Las Terrazas de los Andes “Cheval des Andes,” a wine that gave me chills when I recently tried it in Mendoza.

–Dessert: My favorite dessert wines in the world are Tokaji Aszú from Hungary and Sauternes from France. Both use grapes affected by Noble Rot, making them rich, vibrant and expensive. Nevertheless, the flavor-to-price ratio in each case is quite high. If you prefer a spirit, choose one of these Cognacs that brought me to tears.

As for me, tonight might be the night to open my treasured signed bottle of 2001 Rainbow Ridge Alicante Bouschet, the gayest wine in my rack. I have a feeling that after a long period of waiting, tonight it will be at its very best.

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.

In a moment of rather extravagant optimism, I purchased this wine for about $50, wanting a memorable bubbly on hand in case I had something really fantastic to celebrate. Though people make delicious sparkling wine all over the world, I must admit Champagne still has the edge in my book. What attracted me most to this particular bottle was the the little “RM” in front of the serial number on the bottom of the label. These initials stand for récoltant-manipulant, meaning this Champagne was produced by the grower of the grapes (you can read my post about grower Champagnes here).

At the time, I didn’t even realize that this grower, Michel Turgy, has vineyards in one of the most desirable areas of the Champagne region, around the grand cru village of Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger in the Côte de Blancs, just south of Epernay. The Côte de Blancs achieved grand cru status relatively recently in 1985, but the wines produced from its grapes “have become the most sought-after wines in the whole of Champagne,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. It goes on to note that Côte de Blancs wines “contribute finesse and delicacy yet they mature to an unequaled intensity of flavor.”

Sensible Michel Turgy indicates the village of le Mesnil-sur-Oger as well as its grand cru status on the label, but it’s rare to see the words “Grand Cru” or “Premier Cru” (the next-higest designation) on a bottle of Champagne. The World Atlas of Wine declares, with slight inaccuracy, that “it is never mentioned on the labels.” Why would the French want to make it easy for us? If you seek a grower Champagne from a grand or premier cru vineyard, your best bet is to look for the name of a notable town. Cramant and Avize are the two other Côte de Blancs villages to watch out for.

I poured the Champagne into my friends’ glasses with some trepidation, hoping my apartment’s lack of central air conditioning hadn’t given the wine a case of heat stroke. Its bright straw-yellow color lifted my spirits, and when I lifted the glass to my nose, I smelled the sweet smell of relief in the form of apples and little white flowers. The elegantly tiny bubbles felt delicate on the tongue, and the lively acids hinted at by the nose balanced the rich flavors of caramel corn and a bit of toast. The finish lasted almost until midnight.

What a joy to drink such a splendid wine. As charming as special wines like this look on the rack, they taste even better, and are best when shared with a few good friends.

Cheers to the beginning of the New Year, cheers to the ending of my “too special to drink” collection, and cheers to those wonderful moments of extravagant optimism.

SUMMARY

NV Michel Turgy Réserve-Sélection Blanc-de-Blanc Brut Champagne: This 100% Chardonnay sparkler featured beautiful bubbles and rich flavors balanced by lively acids. Not inexpensive, but a very good value nevertheless.

Grade: A

Find It: MacArthur Beverages in Washington D.C. currently has this Champagne on sale for $35 plus shipping.

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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