Pinot Noir

Beyond Cabernet: Sensational Sparkling Wine In Napa

11 June 2019

Domaine Carneros Winemaker Zak Miller

After meeting with Ivo Jeremaz of Grgich Hills winery in Napa, I resolved to give the famous valley more of a fair shake on this blog. I’ve mostly ignored Napa for the entirety of Odd Bacchus’s eight years of existence, and it’s time I gave one of the world’s most important wine regions a bit of attention. It didn’t take long for an opportunity to present itself.

Along with two other writers, I sat down to (a complimentary) lunch with Zak Miller, one of the few winemakers I’ve met whose name appears nowhere on his winery’s website. That’s no reflection on the quality of his work, however, as my dining companions and I were about to discover.

Miller doesn’t make Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, as one might expect from a Napa winemaker. Instead, he crafts superlative sparkling wines, wines that could compete with top Champagne any day. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a blind tasting, the bottlings he makes for Domaine Carneros might even top those of Taittinger, the Champagne house that founded the winery in 1987.

If you’ve ever driven between Napa and San Francisco, you’ve almost certainly seen Domaine Carneros. It stands at the southern end of the valley, marked by an imposing chateau that looks transplanted straight from the Loire (in fact, the building dates from 1989). The Napa Valley is climatically a bit counterintuitive; it’s cooler at its southern end, where breezes from the Pacific have more of an influence. Cooler weather makes for better sparkling wine, because it’s important for the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes to retain ample acidity. If they ripen too much, the resulting bubbly will be unbalanced.

The Champagne region, in north-central France, famously uses Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in its sparkling wines, just as Domaine Carneros does. Pinot Meunier is also allowed in Champagne blends, but Miller uses none of it. “We don’t need insurance in Carneros,” he explained. In the less-predictable climate of Champagne, Pinot Meunier ends up in the wine when Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir fail to ripen properly. “Something like 50 percent of the Champagne region is planted with Pinot Meunier,” Miller said, “and yet you’ll almost never see it listed on the label!” Domaine Carneros uses only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir because they tend to make higher-quality sparkling wines.

I knew California was capable of producing very good sparkling wine — reasonably priced Chandon regularly finds its way into my glass — but I hadn’t tasted very many truly great California sparklers. That changed with the first wine Miller poured, a 2012 Domaine Carneros “Le Rêve” Blanc de Blancs. The 2012 is the current release of this 100-percent Chardonnay, the “tête du cuvée” (top wine) of Domaine Carneros.

All that time aging on the lees (yeast) gives it a sensational richness. One whiff, and I immediately knew I was about to drink something special. It had an enticingly toasty aroma, but it smelled lively as well. “This sees no oak,” Miller told us. “All the toastiness comes from the bottle-aging.” Lengthy bottle-aging is expensive — it costs a lot of money to wait for seven years to sell your wine — but the payoff in this case is huge. I loved the focused green-apple acids, the round fruit, the rich undergirding of toast… And the pin-prick bubbles felt thoroughly elegant. Le Rêve is expensive at $115 a bottle, but its flavor and texture live up to its price tag. What a gorgeous pairing with some tangy sourdough bread topped with fresh, creamy butter.

Miller tasting the Domaine Carneros Estate Pinot Noir

If you’re looking to impress someone, this bubbly is an ideal choice. On the other hand, if I happened to have a bottle of Le Rêve on hand, I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself drinking the entire thing alone. I’m an only child. Sharing is hard.

The less-expensive 2015 Domaine Carneros Brut Vintage Cuvée would be something that I might consider sharing, but only with someone I really, really like. At about $36 a bottle, this sparkler overdelivers in terms of flavor. I’ll take this wine over a $47 bottle of Veuve any day. “This has immediate sex appeal,” my friend Liz Barrett rightly noted. It smelled brighter than Le Rêve, but it still had some toastiness. It tasted juicy and clean, with some minerality on the finish (and some lime curd, as Liz detected). Another food-friendly wine, this bubbly blends 51 percent Chardonnay, 47 percent Pinot Noir and 2 percent Pinot Gris, which “lifts the aroma,” Miller explained.

Domaine Carneros also makes some excellent still wines. I thoroughly enjoyed the 2016 Domaine Carneros Estate Pinot Noir, fragrant with black cherry and fresh herbs, like sage and bay. When I took a sip, it first felt rather ethereal, hovering over the palate before grounding itself with some focused baking spice and a touch of earth. It was an ideal pairing with some roast chicken breast. Good Pinot is expensive, and at $44, this wine isn’t cheap. But compared to Burgundy of similar quality, it’s an excellent value.

Meyer lemon tart with toasted meringue, frozen yogurt and chiffon “croutons” at Somerset

We finished lunch with a sparkling rosé, a style of wine I don’t ordinarily seek out. Rosé Champagne is terrifically expensive, and other sparkling rosés tend to leave me underwhelmed. The NV Domaine Carneros Cuvée de la Pompadour, however, was racy and exciting. It smelled of lemon, red currant and rose, and it had zesty, sharply focused flavors of juicy lemons and pink apples. This bubbly was superb with our lemon tart dessert, which made the wine feel creamier. Madame de Pompadour introduced Champagne to the French court, and I’m sure she would have been very pleased with this selection.

Over the course of our lunch, Miller explained the effort that goes into making wines like these, but it really wasn’t necessary. The work was obvious as soon as I took a sip (or really, even as soon as I gave the wine a sniff). Champagne and Franciacorta arguably have the best reputations for bubbly, but as these bottlings by Domaine Carneros show, Europe does not have a monopoly on top-quality sparkling wine.

For more on Domaine Carneros, check out Liz Barrett’s article about these wines here.

Note: These wines and the lunch were provided free of charge.

What Vintages Are Best?

28 February 2019

As I poured a glass of wine for a friend, she asked me a surprising question. “So, what makes a wine vintage? If it’s five years old or older?” I was taken aback at first, but I realized the question was quite reasonable. Vintage clothes, for example, don’t come from a specific year. “Vintage” in that case just means old.

Most wine drinkers already understand what a vintage wine is, but the question of which vintages are best is far less clear. Of course, vintages vary according to region. And certain authorities ascribe quality ratings to each year, which means that there must be general agreement on a region’s good years and bad years, right? Well, sort of.

If someone tells you to avoid a certain vintage, take that advice with a grain of salt. Just because the 2016 vintage in Burgundy was bad for growers, for example, it doesn’t mean that the bottle of 2016 Burgundy in front of you is bad. In our latest Name That Wine episode, we explain why.

We also tackle the challenge of chronologically ordering three different vintages of Alloro Vineyard Pinot Noir. As we blind-taste the 2015, 2014 and 2013, we talk about how wines change over time, and do our best to put that knowledge into practice. Alas, the wines we’re tasting aren’t very far apart, so we’ve set ourselves up for quite a difficult task! Well, if nothing else, we can laugh at ourselves:

Note: We received these three bottles of wine as complimentary samples for review on Name That Wine.

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!

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.

Next Page »