Blends – Sparkling

A Romantic Sparkler From The Traisental

17 August 2013

Huber's Hugo Sparkling RoseOn a cool late-summer evening, is there anything more romantic than popping open a bottle of fine sparkling rosé? I love sparkling rosés, and I don’t drink nearly enough of them. It was with some excitement, then, that I discovered a bottle of sparkling rosé not from Champagne (which can be ruinously expensive), but from Austria.

This little central European country is known by American wine drinkers, if at all, for its zippy and food-friendly Grüner Veltliners, not its sparklers. Upon further inspection, I noticed that this bubbly was a blend of Pinot Noir (commonly used in Champagne) and Zweigelt (most definitely not used in Champagne). How could I resist? I snapped up a bottle of the 2012 Weingut Huber “Hugo” Sparkling Rosé.

I could find little general information about Austrian sparkling wine in any of my wine books. It was usually but a footnote, and The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia was positively dismissive. Here is its summary, in full, of the state of Austrian bubbly: “Austria’s best-known sparkling wine is the bottle-fermented Schlumberge, produced in Vienna, but it seldom exceeds in quality.” Well, I must respectfully disagree — the Austrian sparkler I see most often is Szigeti‘s sparkling Grüner Veltliner, which is actually quite delicious.

Zweigelt, also known as Blauer Zweigelt, is one of the most popular red varieties in Austria, a country which does indeed make delicious red wines (for more about Austrian reds, see this post and this post). This popularity belies Zweigelt’s relative youth — this cross between St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch was created less than a century ago, in 1922. Capable of “serious, age-worth wine” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Zweigelt can now be found in every wine region of Austria.

Huber’s Hugo, a blend of Zweigelt and Pinot Noir (the wine’s fact sheet omits the proportions) comes from the Traisental, a wine region of just 1,730 acres straddling the Traisen River. The soil of the vineyards here is a limestone mix, according to the Huber website, which made me think of the chalky soil of Champagne — an encouraging parallel.

Even so, I didn’t get all that much minerality out of the Hugo Sparkling Rosé. It had aromas of berries, wood and yeast, deliciously juicy acids, and a dry finish with strawberry notes. Although this wine was not bottle-fermented, the ample bubbles felt impressively small — even pointy. Paired with a decidedly un-Austrian chicken burger, the juicy acids felt broader and more orangey, and the strawberry notes became clearer. Not too shabby for a $15 bottle of bubbly.

Austrian sparkling wine may have long been rather dire, but if the Hugo and the Szigeti are any indication, I’d say Austrian bubbly is worth another look.

An Ideal Thanksgiving Sparkler

17 November 2012

Last year, I wrote that wine alone might not be enough to get you through Thanksgiving. Nevertheless, as a host, you’ll likely be expected by at least some of your guests to serve wine, or as a guest, your hosts may very well expect you to bring a bottle of wine. In either case, since family is almost surely involved, you probably aren’t in a mood to spend a lot of money. But of course, you also don’t want your family whispering behind your back — for years to come — about that crappy wine you served, with which they could barely wash down that desiccated turkey and gelatinous stuffing.

I have just the thing to thread the needle. Ignore whatever other articles you’ve read, recommending $20 Rhône-style blends or $30 Pinot Noirs. Save those for yourself and your partner — they’ll spruce Thanksgiving leftovers right up. For the big day itself, get thee to Binny’s and pick up some NV (non-vintage) Finca Flichman Brut Extra. It’s $10 a bottle (or even less if you buy a case), and it’s perfectly delightful.

This apricot-colored sparkling wine comes from Mendoza in Argentina, a region much more famous for its Malbec. In fact, it might be tempting to serve Malbec at Thanksgiving, but don’t do it. Everyone thinks it’s inexpensive, so even if you buy a really nice Malbec, you’ll end up looking cheap. On the other hand, no one knows what an Argentinean sparkling wine costs, and when they taste this unusual blend of 80% Chardonnay and 20% Malbec, they’ll never guess it runs just a few dollars more than Yellow Tail.

The grapes for this wine are, impressively at this price point, harvested by hand, theoretically ensuring that only the ripest fruit ends up in the presses. Unfortunately, the second fermentation does not happen in the bottle, in what is known as the Methode Champenoise. Finca Flichman uses the less labor-intensive Charmat process, which usually results in larger, less-refined bubbles.

I tend to be suspicious of wines made in the Charmat method, but in this case, there was no need to fear. The plentiful bubbles couldn’t be described as “pin-prick,” exactly, but they were smaller and more elegant than I expected. The aromas of strawberry and watermelon also surprised me. They were a feint, however — the wine tasted dry but round, with lively, orangey acids and pleasant note of yeast. The berries reappeared only at the end, as a whisper on the finish. Yum. I haven’t tried it with turkey or stuffing, but I have a feeling it would pair perfectly.

And perhaps most important of all, the Finca Flichman’s pinkish-orange color will match beautifully with an autumnally themed Thanksgiving table. Your family will be pleased, and your wallet will remain more or less intact. Those are things I can definitely be thankful for.

SUMMARY

NV Finca Flichman Extra Brut: Fruity on the nose but dry, round and a bit yeasty on the palate. A stellar value, and a fine match for a range of foods. In short, an ideal Thanksgiving choice.

Grade: A-

Find It: I purchased this wine at Binny’s for $10.

Albemarle County’s Celebrity Wineries

11 August 2012

The wines of Virginia blew me away at the Wine Bloggers Conference, held last year in Charlottesville. I had no idea such great things were happening down there; after all, I’d never even sampled a Virginia wine before the conference. They’re not available in every corner grocery. And because of the rarity of these wines up north, I was excited to have the opportunity to return to Albemarle County and get my palate around a few more of these beauties.

Two wineries I put at the top of my list were Trump and Blenheim, owned by Donald Trump and Dave Matthews, respectively. I missed their wines entirely on last year’s visit, and I was curious how these celebrity wineries, set less than a mile apart from each other, would perform. Would Trump wines be overblown, lacking restraint and finesse? Would Blenheim’s be, as iTunes describes the Dave Matthews Band’s debut album, “long-winded” and “unfocused”? I was determined to find out.

The Trump Winery, as you might imagine, comes with quite a story. Trump purchased the winery from Patricia Kluge, a figure who is not beloved in the Virginia wine scene. She engaged in some major real estate bets and winery expansions just as the economy tanked in 2008, and lost much of her fortune, including her winery. A certain sommelier told me that he engaged in a little Schadenfreude, attending the auctions of her furniture, jewelry and wine, managing to purchase hundreds of cases for as little as $2.00 each (most cases of wine went for $14). But an assistant winemaker I spoke with said that Kluge was actually great for the Virginia wine industry. She brought in major winemaking talent, but no one could stand to work for her longer than a year or two. They would then quit, and go off to start their own wineries or find employment at existing ones.

Donald Trump purchased the winery, as well as the front lawn of Kluge’s palatial mansion (he’s waiting for the price on the house itself to go down, as it surely will, since Trump owns all the land right up to the front door). Amid all these shenanigans, Kluge Estate (now the Trump Winery) continued to produce acclaimed wines, and I wanted to try some myself. After a drive through some beautifully rolling countryside past notable landmarks such as Monticello, I found my way to the glossy tasting room.

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Soviet Champagne

30 May 2012

Shopping in the disorganized but intriguing wine section of Gene’s a few days ago, I came across an exciting find: a bottle of 2010 Artemovsk Winery “Krim” semi-sweet sparkling wine. From the Ukraine! The label had the reassuring words “Classical Technology,” which I interpreted as Méthode Champenoise, since it went on to say “aged in bottles for one year.” It would seem I had a well-made Ukrainian sparkling wine on my hands! The $14 price tag indicated some ambition, so I snapped it up.

If you, like me, assumed that Ukraine didn’t have much of a wine industry, you would be quite incorrect. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, about 250,000 acres of vineyards currently grow in this former Soviet republic, mostly on the southerly Crimean Peninsula. Viticulture dates back thousands of years here. Serious sparkling wine production is a more recent phenomenon, starting in 1896 when Henri Roederer (of Roederer Champagne) founded a winery devoted to bubbly near Odessa.

The Russian Imperial Court loved sparkling wine, and the Soviets carried on that tradition (among others less palatable). One of the most important wineries producing Soviet “Champagne” was Artemovsk (also spelled “Artyomovsk”), located in the eastern Ukrainian town of Artemivsk.

No vineyards grace the countryside surrounding this industrial city, so why build a major winery here? Gypsum mines. These huge, abandoned mines provide ideal conditions for aging wine: cool and stable. With aging facilities like this, who cares if you have to truck the grapes up from the Crimean Peninsula?

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Some Holiday Sparkle

11 December 2011

I recently had the fortune to receive a complimentary tasting sample of three bottles of Cava, the world’s second-most famous sparkling wine. Catalonia, that feisty, autonomous region around Barcelona, produces the vast majority of it, and two companies, Codorníu and Freixenet, dominate this production.

Ordinarily, I’m biased towards the little guy, but in this instance, it seems wiser to go with the big boys. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “The best Cavas tend to be produced by the larger firms who control their own vinification rather than those producers who buy in ready-made base wine from one of the large but often outdated co-operatives that continue to flourish all over Cataluña.” (“Cataluña” is the Spanish spelling, “Catalonia” is the English spelling, and you may also encounter “Catalunya,” the Catalan spelling.)

Freixenet (pronounced “Fresh-eh-net”) Cava may not seem especially unusual or obscure, but these three Cavas were all pink. Rosé Cava really came into its own only in the late 1990s, perhaps hindered until then by Cava traditionalists who “…for some bizarre reason always considered black grapes in a white Cava to be sacrilegious,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The Encyclopedia goes on to describe how Manuel Duran, then chairman of Freixenet, experimented with black Spanish varieties, producing a notable Monastrell-Xarel·lo sparkler in 1997.

I looked forward to seeing what Freixenet had been up to since then, and organized a little party to find out.

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French Breakfast

30 September 2011

When I arrived at Gourmet Chicago, I made a beeline for the Pritzker Pavilion’s Choral Room where Roederer Estate was hosting a sparking wine seminar. Here, no line of people clogged the door — I could just walk right in and take a seat behind four empty glasses filled with anticipation.

I’ve had tasty California sparklers before, but I never thought they really compared with true Champagne. Our presenter, Xavier Barlier, agreed, noting that “because the climate of California is not so severe, the [sparkling] wines don’t achieve the finesse of Champagne.”

Well, the wines we sampled seemed pretty darn tasty to me. I was surprised to see them poured into white wine glasses instead of the more traditional flutes. Barlier liked the elegant look of flutes, but he called them “straight jackets,” arguing that the sparkling wine doesn’t have room to expand and express all of its aromas and flavors. “Better to use Chardonnay glasses,” he advised.

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An Odd Array Of Toasts

20 August 2011

While planning the order of our upcoming wedding reception, we ran into trouble figuring out who we wanted to toast and when. It can get a little complicated, matching differing family structures and sets of friends. We needed a guide.

I have a set of vintage etiquette books, including the incomparable Emily Post’s Etiquette, but we thought Letitia Baldridge’s Complete Guide to the New Manners for the 90’s would be more helpful in this case. She offered very clear, direct advice, as she always does. So should you find yourself wondering who should toast and in what order, here is the official list:

The best man toasts the bride.

The groom toasts the bride.

The bride toasts her groom.

The father of the bride toasts the couple.

The bride toasts her groom’s parents.

The groom toasts his bride’s parents.

The matron or maid of honor toasts the couple.

The father of the groom toasts the couple.

The mother of the bride toasts the couple.

The mother of the groom toasts the couple.

Other relatives and close friends of the bride or groom continue toasting.

At which point the reception guests start sawing at their forearms with the butter knives.

Fortunately with our guests, we feel certain that the toasts will be at least as interesting as the sparkling wine we’re toasting with: Crémant de Loire. This bubbly from France’s Loire Valley makes an elegant, less-expensive alternative to Champagne. The bubbles tend to be fine, and they frequently express a bit of that yeasty goodness on the nose that I enjoy in real Champagnes.

So give a Crémant de Loire a try the next time you need a sparkler; they usually cost between $15 and $20 per bottle.

Cheers!

A Meeting Of Rivals

31 May 2011

There may be an almost countless number of wine regions gracing the globe, but Bordeaux remains arguably the most important benchmark of quality. It wasn’t always so, of course. The Loire Valley once held that title, its river serving as an easy trade route into the Atlantic, from which cargoes of wine swung north to thirsty Holland and England.

That all ended in the 12th Century, when Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II favored Gascony with generous excise tax privileges, ensuring that “…Gascony became the most important supplier of the English court and London society,” according to André Dominé’s Wine.

The Loire Valley’s still wines have languished in the shadow of Bordeaux ever since, and to the north, the sparklers of Champagne continue to eclipse Loire bubblies. But again, “Saumur producers claim to have been in the fizz business long before the Champenois.” (Alice King, Fabulous Fizz.)

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