Sparkling

Franciacorta: Prosecco’s Upscale Neighbor

10 July 2015

Cavalleri Franciacorta

I love sparkling wine at any time of year, but it tastes especially good in summer. It’s refreshing, it’s light and it works well with everything from potato salad to ribs. Champagne continues to set the standard for sparkling wine, but because of its price, I more often reach for a nice Prosecco or Cava which can be had for as little as $12 a bottle (I tend to avoid those costing less). When I’m feeling a little fancier — but not quite ready to drop $35 on Champagne — I opt instead for a Franciacorta.

Few people outside Italy had heard of this region bordering Lake Iseo in north-central Italy until the 1970s. That’s when, as The World Atlas of Wine explains, the Berlucchi family started to directly imitate the methods of Champagne, methods “subsequently taken up by farm after farm” in the area. The Berlucchis sparked a sparkling wine revolution, bottle fermentation became the norm, and now, as The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia asserts, “Franciacorta is currently the only Italian dry sparkling-wine appellation that can demand respect from the rest of the world.”

What about Prosecco, you may reasonably wonder. Never one to mince words, Sotheby’s complains that most Prosecco is “boring.” The Oxford Companion to Wine goes even further, arguing that “The finished wines are light and frothing, their neutrality and defects too often masked by over-generous additions of sugar.” Ouch.

Contemplating the CavalleriWell, I have no problem with Prosecco. Its price doesn’t lead me to expect too much of it, and despite its lack of bottle fermentation, it usually has small bubbles and enough flavor to be fun, if not truly interesting. And if you just need something for mimosas, Prosecco won’t let you down.

Franciacorta, on the other hand, aspires to some elegance, as indicated by price tags ranging from about $20 to $40, and occasionally more. Not inexpensive, but certainly not reaching into the lofty heights of Champagne prices, either. That makes it a perfect wine to open over a casual weekend dinner with your loved one. It’s exactly the sort of thing I might bring to my parents’ house to drink at a family barbecue before the rest of the family arrives.

I recently received three free sample bottles of Franciacorta to try, and I managed to twist a few friends’ arms into trying them with me:

La Montina BrutCavalleri Blanc de Blancs: This 100% Chardonnay tasted fine, with notes of wood, round fruit and lemony acids. Unfortunately, the aroma smelled distinctly of varnish (one friend described it as “rancid plastic”). I suspect something happened to this bottle. A notable varnish odor indicates an overabundance of ethyl acetate, which, as Wikipedia describes, can smell sweet in small quantities but like nail polish remover in larger amounts. Average Retail: $20

Ronco Calino Brut: A blend of 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir, the Ronco Calino smelled ever so much better than the Cavalleri: like green apples with a touch of minerality. The bubbles felt small, fizzy and very prickly, ensuring that this wine would pair with all sorts of foods. I liked its rather heady flavors of fermented apples and honeysuckle. It would surely be a hit at a party. Average Retail: $27

La Montina Brut: This Franciacorta exuded elegance. It smelled very enticing with notes of red apple and dusky orange, and even a touch of caramel. The tiny bubbles were very classy. It felt fruity, zesty and rich all at once, making for quite a bright and beautiful bubbly, and my favorite Franciacorta of the evening. Average Retail: $25

A Festive Sparkler From The Holy Land

20 December 2014

Gilgal BrutToday marks the midpoint of Hanukkah, and Christmas is just days away. What better time, then, to celebrate with a bottle of sparkling wine from Israel?

Many people still associate sickly sweet Maneschewitz-like wines with Israel, but in recent decades, the country has quietly undergone a quality revolution. “It was the late-1970s planting on the volcanic soils of the Golan Heights, from 1,300 feet above the Sea of Galilee up to 4,000 feet towards Mount Hermon,” The World Atlas of Wine explains, “that signaled a new direction.” The Oxford Companion to Wine concurs, noting that “Planting vineyards with noble varieties in cooler, high-altitude areas, combined with internationally trained winemakers and expertise… had dramatic effects.”

But winemaking in Israel dates back thousands of years, and wine appears frequently in the Bible’s Old and New Testaments. That tradition continued under Roman and Byzantine rule until AD 636, the Oxford Companion relates, “when the spread of Islam brought about the destruction of the vineyards.” Crusaders started wine production again in about AD 1100, but maintained it for only about 200 years: “With the exile of the Jews, vine-growing ceased.”

As Jewish people returned from the Diaspora centuries later, winemaking began once again. Galilee in northern Israel is the best-quality region, according to every resource I’ve consulted, its high-altitude vineyards offering a beneficially cooler climate than the coast. Jesus grew up in this region, in Nazareth, and it makes sense: If you’re the son of God, of course you would choose to live in the best wine region you could.

The Golan Heights Winery is the third largest in Israel, and it helped lead the quality revolution by planting vineyards of noble international varieties in the Golan Heights in 1976. The winery’s 28 vineyards “range in altitude from 400 meters (1,300 feet) at Geshur, up to almost 1,200 meters (3,900 feet) at Odem,” according to its website, and these vineyards are further divided into 400 separate blocks. The grapes from each are stored and handled separately throughout the winemaking process, allowing Golan Heights to get a real feel for each parcel’s terroir and determine which varieties grow best where. I was also excited to see that Golan Heights was the first winery in Israel to grow its grapes organically.

I picked up a bottle of its NV Gilgal Brut, a 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay blend named after the Gilgal Refaim, an enigmatic 5,000-year-old assemblage of some 42,000 basalt rocks arranged in concentric circles located near the winery. This light straw-colored wine proved to be delightful, with aromas of red berries, yeast and round, orangey citrus. It felt full and ripe in the mouth. The berries and yeast were there, along with zesty acids and a froth of prickly bubbles. The finish was quite tart, with pronounced notes of green apple. I tried it again after it sat open in the refrigerator for two hours, which gave it time to develop a rounder note of vanilla.

What a fun, cheerful sparkler, and food-friendly, too. Its racy acids paired especially well with some crab Rangoon, cutting right through the richness. The Gilgal Brut would surely do well with just about any cheese or cream-based dish, making it ideal as an apéritif with cheese and crackers. I really want to try it with cheese fondue.

Making a sparkling wine in the Champagne method with traditional grapes requires great effort and significant investment in infrastructure. But it makes sense that Golan Heights would want to dive into such an elaborate project. The head winemaker, Victor Schoenfeld, worked at Jacquesson, a 200-year-old Champagne house in France, before he joined Golan Heights. His Gilgal Brut clearly reflects that experience.

I purchased the Gilgal Brut at Binny’s for about $14, which is quite a value for the money. If your wine shop has a Kosher section, you might also find it there (it’s Kosher for Passover).

There are any number of wonderful wines you can serve during Hanukkah and Christmas, but I found it particularly satisfying to sip the Gilgal Brut, which has a direct connection to the Holy Land. It’s a very fun and festive wine, but it offers an opportunity for reflection as well.

Find Something To Celebrate

8 November 2014

Oriol Gual of Juve y CampsIt is unquestionably celebratory to hear that most beautiful of all sounds, that of a cork pop, and bubbly deserves its status as the most festive of all wines. Prosecco appears at parties more frequently now, and Champagne corks whiz through the air on New Year’s Eve. But considering all we Americans have to celebrate, we serve sparkling wine relatively rarely. This is an error.

First, sparkling wine goes well with such a wide variety of foods, it’s quite difficult to screw up a pairing. When in doubt, go with the bubbles. Second, guests love sparkling wine, regardless of the occasion for their visit. It makes them feel special. Third, it can be a fantastic value for the money. It’s not affordable for most of us to drink Champagne any time we feel like it, but there are plenty of other fine sparkling wines available for weeknight prices. Cava is one of them.

I recently tried six superb Cavas produced by Juvé y Camps, which, according to the promotional materials I received, uses fruit only from its own vineyards (most Cava producers, like those in Champagne, buy fruit from independent growers). Juvé y Camps also hand-riddles all its bottles, a labor-intensive process now performed by machines in most wineries, and it uses free-run juice, collected without pressing the grapes. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, free-run juice “is generally superior to, and much lower in tannins than, juice or wine whose extraction depends on pressing.”

In the 2007 Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, author Tom Stevenson is more than usually grumpy about Juvé y Camps, writing, “I have failed to discern any of the intrinsically superior qualities in these wines that some Cava-infatuated critics have found. However, I do hasten to add that there is nothing wrong with the wines of this respected, traditional family firm.” I’m no Cava-infatuated critic — I rarely buy them, as a matter of fact, because I (rightly or wrongly) associate Cava with large bubbles. But I thought Juvé y Camps’ Cavas were quite delicious and elegant, whatever Mr. Stevenson has to say.

2010 Reserva de la Familia: You’ll encounter vintage-dated Cavas far more frequently than vintage Champagnes or Proseccos. This example includes the three traditional Cava grape varieties, Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel·lo, and it includes no dosage, the mixture of wine and sugar syrup added to most méthode Champenoise wines at the final stage of production. A dosage can smooth over certain flaws in a sparkling wine, in addition to adding some sweetness. Omitting it entirely is risky; as Juvé y Camps’ Export Area Manager Oriol Gual explained, “It’s like working without a safety net.” Juvé y Camps crossed the tightrope with this wine, certainly. It had a surprising and very pleasant aroma of light caramel, popcorn and orange peel. Elegant and zesty on the palate, it exhibited prickly bubbles and notes of citrus and light toast.

2009 Gran Juvé Reserva Brut: Aged 60 months on the lees and made only in the best vintages, this Cava includes the unorthodox variety of Chardonnay in with the traditional Spanish blend. It felt very classy, with a toasty, citrusy aroma, sharp bubbles, and a dry but perfumed quality — there were notes of orange flowers and stone fruits. Delicious and refined.

2010 Blanc de Noirs Brut Reserva: Unusually for a Cava, or any sparkling wine, for that matter, this bottling blends 90% Pinot Noir with 10% Xarel·lo (Cava producers have been experimenting with the traditional Champagne varieties of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in recent years). This romantic sparkler had a tight aroma of candied berries, or as one fellow taster exclaimed, “It’s like that dust in straws!” (he meant Pixy Stix). Spicy but elegant, it had tiny, pointy bubbles, some subtle red-fruit undertones and chalk on the finish.

NV Pinot Noir Brut Rosé: This 100% Pinot Noir had a lovely watermelon color and aromas of berries and orange zest. It was fruity but dry, with orangey acids and very small, classy bubbles. An excellent choice for date night — I could easily picture snuggling up by the fireplace with this one.

NV Juvé Sweet: During my time at the Juvé y Camps tasting table, several people expressed skepticism about this Cava. A lot of experienced wine drinkers look down on sweeter wines, regarding them as uninteresting or simply for amateurs. They may be unfashionable, but by ignoring them, you deny yourself an entire range of beautiful and well-balanced wines. In this case, I enjoyed Juvé Sweet’s fresh, cheerful aromas of white fruits, and its sweet but non-cloying character. It had balanced acids, a bit of perfume and small, refined bubbles. This Cava would make an excellent aperitif — it’s a more sophisticated alternative to Moscato d’Asti.

Many of these wines cost far less than you might expect, considering the quality and the labor required to craft them. Binny’s, for example, sells the Reserva de la Familia and the Brut Rosé for $15 a bottle. I think that’s cause for some celebration.

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.

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