Grape Varieties

What To Buy The Wine Geek For Christmas

16 December 2018

Sparkling wine is always a welcome gift. I recently fell in love with this Keush Origins Brut from Armenia that I found at In Fine Spirits

I once held a party for a milestone birthday, and in contrast to the current fashion for “presence is present enough,” I requested actual presents. I had just started this blog, and I wanted some unusual wines. But I knew people needed a little more guidance than that. So I was very specific.

I said to please go into a wine shop, go up to a clerk and tell them exactly this: “Hello. I have a friend who writes a blog about unusual wines, and he has a birthday. He asked me to come into a wine shop, and ask an employee to help me find an unusual wine that costs $15 or less. Could you help me pick something out that he’ll like?”

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? And yet only perhaps two or three people actually did what I requested. The rest quailed in apparent terror at the thought of going to a wine shop and speaking with someone, and so they brought vodka or wine-themed napkins or, in one case, a corkscrew.

A corkscrew? Are you f’ing kidding me? I have a wine blog. What do you think I’ve been using to open the bottles I’ve been reviewing? My teeth?

I mentioned this story recently to a therapist friend of mine, and bursting into laughter, she exclaimed, “No one is ever going to buy you wine!” But why, I asked, since that’s the only thing I requested, and I told people exactly what to do? “Ha ha! It doesn’t matter! They’re afraid they’ll get it wrong, and then you’ll judge them and shame them.” Oh dear.

Of course. I was bumping up against the deathless stereotype of the obnoxious French sommelier who looks down on anyone who doesn’t know their Yellow Tail from their Yquem. Many civilians (non-wine geeks) seem to think that anyone passionate about the nitty-gritty of wine might be like that horrible person. And certainly, I’ve met the occasional blowhard at the Wine Bloggers Conference — sorry, Wine Media Conference — that is more interested in tooting his own vinous horn (it’s almost always a him) than in connecting with his fellow wine writers. That attitude comes from a place of fear and lack of self-esteem (see here for more on that). Remember that fact, should you ever encounter this unfortunate sort of person.

Few wine geeks I know, however, resemble anything like that archetypal French sommelier. We’re just people passionately interested in wine, and we want to try lots of new, delicious bottlings.

I have enough corkscrews.

So let’s make a deal. Because wine geeks are, in fact, ridiculously easy to shop for. We just want wine. Not wine accessories, not wine-themed merchandise… just wine.

Here’s how to pick out the perfect wine:

Go to a wine shop — not a grocery store — find an employee, and say something like the following: “Hi, I’m shopping for my friend who loves wine, and he/she is especially interested in _________. I’d like to spend about _______. Do you have anything like that?”

I understand that it’s scary — it must be, judging by what happened at that birthday party — but 99.9% of wine shop employees and owners will love to hear you say something like that, because it makes you easy to help. It’s in their interest to be friendly, rather than judgmental. (Though, of course, you do occasionally get a bad apple.) Don’t worry if your budget isn’t very high. Most wine shops carry bottles at a wide range of prices. In Fine Spirits, one of my favorite wine shops in Chicago, has some perfectly lovely bottles for around $10. And if you’re not willing to spend that on your friend, perhaps you shouldn’t bother getting them a gift at all.

If you don’t know what kind of wine your friend enjoys, ask their significant other, or if that doesn’t work, just get some sparkling wine. Almost everyone likes sparkling wine. If your friend doesn’t, feel free to tell them that Odd Bacchus thinks they’re weird.

And wine geeks! Your part of the bargain is that you will not, under any circumstances, make judgmental noises about a wine that someone has given you. Even if someone gives you something rather less than exciting, you can always turn it into sangria or, if the season is right, Feuerzangenbowle. If we want people to be unafraid to give us wine, we have to make it safe for people to do so. If we act judgmental about a wine gift, verbally or non-verbally, we’re telling the person who gave us the wine that they did something wrong, and being told you’re wrong feels terrible. Wine, it’s easy for us to forget, is kind of scary for a lot of people. That fear is irrational, yes, but it’s real nevertheless.

So do we all have a deal?

Merry Christmas, everyone! Here’s my Christmas list: Wine. Happy shopping!

A Forgotten Style Of Champagne, Resurrected

27 November 2018

I love it when someone reaches back into history for inspiration, and resurrects a wine or spirit that has been “lost” for years. A while back I wrote about how Robert Cooper of Charles Jacquin et Cie reintroduced Crème Yvette, and I’m proud to say that my article about some sparkling red Gevery-Chambertin, made in the style of a long-forgotten Burgundian AOC, won me a Millésima Blog Award.

So it was with no small measure of delight that I sat down, with my cohost Liz Barrett, to interview Champagne maker Delphine Vesselle of Champagne Jean Vesselle. First, she produces Grower Champagne, which means that she makes Champagne from grapes grown in her own vineyards. Most Champagne labels, including almost all the famous ones like Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Krug, blend grapes from across the region to make their sparkling wines. Vesselle has full control of her grapes, from spring pruning through to harvest, pressing and fermentation.

Second, Vesselle produces a now-unusual style of Champagne called Oeil de Perdrix. Once common in and around the Pinot Noir-rich town of Bouzy, home to Champagne Jean Vesselle, Oeil de Perdrix translates as “eye of a partridge,” the color of which this amber Champagne apparently resembles. What makes Oeil de Perdrix different from a standard rosé is that the latter results from purposeful skin contact at the time of pressing in the winery. Oeil de Perdrix happens more en route from the vineyard. Bouzy’s warmer sites can really ripen Pinot Noir, and if the grapes are ripe enough when picked, they gently press themselves and start to macerate before they even make it to the winery. Hence the orangey tinge that’s not quite a rosé.

Early in the 20th century, big Champagne houses decided they wanted Champagne that was either rosé or not, not something in between, and so Oeil de Perdrix fell out of favor. It was Delphine Vesselle’s father who resurrected the style, as she relates in the interview. And my word, it is absolutely delicious.

You can watch our interview with the charming and very funny Delphine Vesselle here, filmed at the headquarters of Chicago importer and distributor H2Vino:

And to learn more about Grower Champagne, check out my articles about it here and here. If you want to impress a wine lover this season, Grower Champagne is a perfect gift!

Walla Walla What?

7 October 2018

It was the morning of our Red Mountain AVA excursion, a pre-Wine Bloggers Conference tour of one of Washington’s hottest wine regions. Chomping at the bit to start exploring the delights of Washington wine, Liz Barrett, my cohost of Name That Wine, and I decided that a little breakfast tasting was in order.

Lu Lu Craft Bar + Kitchen, a farm-to-table restaurant overlooking the Columbia River in Richland, about an hour outside Walla Walla, challenged us to blind-taste two wines off their list of some 25 by-the-glass offerings, mostly from Washington. I must admit I’m not as familiar with Washington wine as I’d like to be — and I was certainly much less so when we filmed this, before the start of the conference.

Liz and I dove in nevertheless, discovering two surprising wines that got us really excited about delving deeper in to wines from Walla Walla and Washington in general. If you haven’t tried a Washington wine recently, it’s time to put one in your glass.

If you liked this video, do subscribe to our channel on YouTube, so that you don’t miss a single ridiculous episode of Name That Wine!

Franciacorta: A Lesson For The Rest Of Italy

27 September 2018

Like most European countries, Italy has a wine classification system that, in theory, gives the potential drinker a guarantee of quality. But Italians are stereotypically poor at organization, and so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the system doesn’t always work. Hence the rise of “Super Tuscans,” for example, that transcended their essentially worthless (at the time) regional regulations.

Italy has made headway in fixing lax wine rules, but it still has a ways to go. I mean, how many beautiful examples of  Barbera d’Asti have I had, classified as DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), and how many examples of boring Moscato d’Asti, classified in the ostensibly superior DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita)? Yes, they’re completely different wines, but is there some way that Moscato d’Asti is superior to Barbera d’Asti? I don’t know it.

But at least one region of Italy is getting things right. Franciacorta “is an object lesson for the rest of the Italian wine industry,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The region’s still wines remain classed as DOC, and only the sparkling wines, the region’s true glory, have been elevated to DOCG. Other regions could “restrict production to the original classico area and a reduced yield,” Sotheby’s suggests. “This would result in both a DOC and a DOCG for the same region and… it would ensure that the ‘G’ did guarantee an elevated quality…” Sounds sensible to me.

Windy City Wine Guy Michael Bottigliero

Although the same cannot be said for all Italian wines, at least when you buy a bottle that says Franciacorta DOCG, you know you’re getting something of real quality. Franciacorta produces “Italy’s best metodo classico wine,” according to The World Atlas of Wine, and I’m not one to disagree. Like Champagne, Franciacorta has exacting production requirements, and mostly like Champagne, it’s made with Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir (sorry, Pinot Meunier). Franciacorta is therefore consistently delicious.

But it’s been a while since I’ve indulged in a bottle. A recent Franciacorta-focused dinner reminded me of how exciting the region’s sparklers can be.

The Windy City Wine Guy, Michael Bottigliero, invited me to attend a dinner at a fine Italian restaurant in Chicago called Nonnina, free of charge, in order to show off Franciacorta. We sampled — sampled? We drank four contrasting Franciacortas, and each was delightful in its own way.

The 2013 Ricci Curbastro Satèn Brut felt lean and wonderfully classy, like a slender Italian guy in a perfectly tailored suit. It certainly started the evening off on the right foot. “Satèn” indicates a Franciacorta that’s 100% Chardonnay, a Blanc de Blancs in Champagne terminology, aged on the lees for at least 24 months. Non-vintage Champagne, incidentally, need age only 12 months on the lees before its release, although many are aged much longer.

But the all-around favorite, as indicated by the room’s applause when Michael mentioned the wine’s name, was the Corte Bianca Extra Brut. “Zowie,” I wrote in my little book, taking my customarily thorough tasting notes. I don’t need notes to remember this wine, however. It had palpable richness in addition to lively lemony acids, along with a hint of white flowers. And there was that yeasty, bready note I covet in a sparkling wine. Zowie indeed. It worked wonderfully with some vegetable fritto misto as well as pizza topped with prosciutto and arugula.

I also deeply enjoyed the 2012 Monte Rossa Cabochon Vintage Brut, which smelled of Granny Smith apples and jasmine. Its zesty juiciness and minerality helped it stand up to some decadent bucatini alla carbonara. I could eat that carbonara and drink that Cabochon every day and be very happy.

We finished with a pale Mosnel Rosé, composed of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. It had tight bubbles and plenty of strawberry fruit, but it was the juicy acids that leavened an otherwise bone-dry wine. With the salmon, it was an ideal match.

I’ve praised the virtues of Franciacorta before, here and here, but it never hurts to be reminded just how delicious Franciacorta can be. It’s not necessarily inexpensive, but if you want to celebrate something with someone you want to impress, Franciacorta is a great choice. Champagne is a delight but it’s predictable. Celebrating with Champagne is something of a cliché. But if you open up a bottle of Franciacorta, it shows you’ve got sophistication, as well as the confidence to stand behind something a little out of the ordinary.

I wouldn’t stake your reputation on any old random Italian DOCG, but with Franciacorta, you can feel sure that the “G” in “DOCG” is indeed a guarantee of quality.

Note: The dinner at Nonnina and the glasses of wine that accompanied it were provided free of charge.

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