Sparkling

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.

Szigeti’s Unusual Sparkling Grüner Veltliner

12 October 2015

Szigeti Gruner Veltliner BrutThat Austria makes delightful Grüner Veltliner is no secret — Grüner varietals appear on many a wine list these days, because they tend to be not only delicious but food-friendly, with plenty of acid and spice. I love them. Last year when I visited Vienna, I had the fortune to sample a number of Grüner Veltliner Smaragd wines, which blew me away with their rich fruit, focus and power. But until a recent vacation in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, I’d never tasted a Grüner with bubbles.

You don’t have to go to Austria (or Northwoods Wisconsin) to find a sparkling Grüner Veltliner, however. Szigeti may be a family company, but it’s not a small operation. The winery corks 100,000 bottles of non-vintage Grüner Veltliner Brut each year alone, out of a total production of some 600,000 bottles of various sparkling wines, according to U.S. importer Winebow. That means, in contrast to many of the other wines described on this website, you actually have a fighting chance of finding this one.

At first glance, Szigeti’s location near the Neusiedlersee, a shallow lake on the Austrian/Hungarian border surrounded by plains, seems unpromising. The lack of beneficial hills is worrisome, and then there’s the fact that the Neusiedlersee region isn’t one of Austria’s best for Grüner, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine (it argues that Grüner is at its best in the Wachau, Kamptal, Kremstal, Weinviertel and Donauland). The World Atlas of Wine isn’t reassuring either, focusing on how the Neusiedlersee region produces appealing sweet wines, because mists from the lake encourage the growth of botrytis (noble rot). Neither book mentions anything about quality Grüner Veltliner coming out of Neusiedlersee.

But then, you don’t hear anything about quality Chardonnay coming out of Champagne. As the Oxford Companion explains, “Wines that are good raw material for the sparkling wine-making process are not usually much fun to drink in their still state. They are typically high in acidity and unobtrusively flavored.” Still wines made from Neusiedlersee Grüner Veltliner may not be much to talk about, but the grapes work beautifully in bubbly.

I brought a bottle of NV Szigeti Grüner Veltliner Brut up to Boyd’s Mason Lake Resort, where the family gathered to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday. One night, the charmingly old-fashioned resort served a Thanksgiving-style turkey dinner, and it seemed like an ideal moment to try this unusual sparkler. Under the gaze of the fish and deer heads mounted on the lodge’s wall, I popped the cork.

I hadn’t planned on taking any tasting notes — I was on vacation, after all — but the wine 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 use of the most time-consuming and expensive means of producing sparkling wine, méthode traditionelle, in which the second fermentation — the fermentation which causes the bubbles — takes place in the bottle as opposed to a large steel tank. It had ample fruit and a pleasant powdered candy note, all balanced by soft limey acids. It stood up well to the turkey, but it also would make a fine aperitif all on its own.

The Szigeti Grüner Veltliner Brut isn’t inexpensive — it costs $17-$20 a bottle — but in this case, that’s money well spent. The obvious quality of the wine along with its unique character and versatility make it a value at that price. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it again, and I’m going to keep my eye out for other Szigeti sparklers as well.

Overdue For A Brazilian

4 September 2015
Vanessa presenting four wines by Salton

Vanessa presenting four wines by Salton

Until recently, I’d never had a Brazilian — wax or wine. I found the idea of either one more than a little scary, and frankly unnecessary. But when I spied a table of Brazilian wines by Vinícola Salton at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference, I decided it was time to face my fears.

Founded in 1910, Salton is one of Brazil’s oldest wineries, but that’s not necessarily an advantage. According to The World Atlas of Wine, Brazil has long made uninteresting wine “because of where it was made: near centers of population, in areas of high humidity with fertile soils, by small farmers with rudimentary skills.” And indeed, Salton’s beautiful winery is located in the old Serra Gaúcha region, where, as The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, where “Average rainfall… is very high for a wine region,” and soils “have a high proportion of water-retaining clay.” As a result, “fungal diseases are a constant threat,” and wines from here tend to be of “basic quality.”

Fortunately, tradition has not stopped Salton from investing in new vineyards in the drier and less fertile region of Campanha along the northern border of Uruguay. In 2010, Salton purchased 1,100-some acres of vineyards in Campanha, which the World Atlas calls “the focus of fine wine development in Brazil, with particular attention now being paid to matching vine variety and soil type.”

It all sounds promising, but really, Brazilian wine? Even this odd wine drinker felt a little skeptical as I held out my glass for a sample.

NV Salton Intenso Brut: Vanessa (pictured above) told me I was drinking a blend of Chardonnay and Riesling (!) from Campanha, but Salton’s website describes this wine as a blend of Chardonnay, Prosecco and Trebbiano from Serra Gaúcha. In any case, it has a subtle aroma of dried herbs, a fruity attack on the palate and a rather savory finish. I liked the flavor journey, and for $17, you can take it too. Other sparklers might be better values, but this is the obvious choice with which to celebrate Brazilian Independence Day (September 7).

2012 Salton Intenso Cabernet Franc: This restrained but still-powerful wine had a dusky dark-fruit aroma, taut dark-fruit flavors, a perk of white-pepper spice and some balanced tannins on the finish. I liked it, and I wasn’t surprised to find out that it came from Campanha. The next wine, however, was a complete and total astonishment.

2012 Salton Intenso Tannat: “This is a 100% Tannat? That’s brave,” I remarked, trying to sound as positive as possible. I enjoy Tannat in blends, but many of the varietal Tannats I’ve tried tend to be mouthfuls of tannins (see my controversial Tannat post here).

“It’s actually really light and elegant,” Vanessa replied, smiling despite my look of utter disbelief. A light and elegant Tannat seems about as likely as a light and elegant Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I tasted it and nearly spit it out in shock before I managed to spit it out with composure into the spit bucket. Where were the overpowering tannins? This Campanha Tannat tasted fruity and well-balanced, with some restrained spice and supple — supple! — tannins. Uruguay has got some Tannat competition.

2009 Salton Talento: The Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Tannat grapes in this Bordeaux-style blend are hand-harvested, and the quality control shows in the wine. It had a clean red-fruit aroma and it tasted beautifully balanced, with ripe fruit, ample spice, classy tannins on the finish and something earthy and funky underneath it all. The grapes come from both Campanha and Serra Gaúcha, which leads me to wonder if coaxing high-quality fruit from Serra Gaúcha might be possible after all. I wouldn’t hesitate to serve this to guests at a dinner party, ideally with some steak.

Brazil opened its markets to imported wine only in the 1990s, which means local wineries have had only about 20 years of competition. These wines are evidence that they haven’t wasted those two decades. There are some interesting things trickling out of Brazil these days, and should you encounter a Brazilian bottle on a wine list or in a shop, I recommend asking about it. Its quality might surprise you.

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

« Previous PageNext Page »