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

Celebrating The SCOTUS Marriage Decision

26 June 2015
After our ceremony, my new mother-in-law presented us with Bert and Ernie dolls.

After our ceremony, my new mother-in-law presented us with Bert and Ernie dolls.

It’s not every day that the Supreme Court hands down a ruling so fully and dramatically in support of human rights. This ruling striking down laws banning same-sex marriage is truly historic. It will change the lives of millions of people, who, in at least one respect, lived as second-class citizens of the United States.

That calls for a first-class celebration. I recommend heading straight to your city’s largest gay bar after work, where the mood will doubtless be more than usually festive. And what the heck, order a Cosmopolitan. Yes, it’s terribly dated, but it’s about as gay as cocktails get, and it remains as delicious as ever when properly made: decent vodka, triple sec or Grand Marnier, cranberry juice and fresh lime — not Rose’s or sour mix.

If you prefer to have a party rather than going to a bar — and let’s face it, that’s exactly what most of us married folk prefer — it’s time to pull out all the stops.


–Aperitif: Campari and club soda, served in a highball and garnished with lime. It’s refreshing, it’s pink, and you only need to add a little Campari to each glass, making it inexpensive to mix a lot of these. If you aren’t expecting a mob, opt for a slightly more complicated Gaspare: 4 parts club soda, 1/2 part fresh-squeezed lime juice (do not use bottled), 1/4 part simple syrup (1 part sugar dissolved in 1 part water), 1 part Campari.

–First Course: Evolúció Furmint. Chicago’s biggest wine shop, Binny’s, sells this exotic Hungarian wine for just $9 a bottle, and you get a lot of flavor bang for your buck. If you can’t find it, consider instead a Torrontés from Argentina, ideally from around Salta. Typically bright with tropical fruit and flowers but still very dry, a good Torrontés can be had for $10 or $12 per bottle.

–Second Course: A Portuguese red blend. Red wines from Portugal tend to be excellent values because most of us can’t even pronounce the indigenous grape varieties, let alone tell you what they taste like. Furthermore, Portugal tends to be overshadowed by its much more famous neighbor, the land of Rioja and Cava. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find a ripely fruity and dry Portuguese red for around $10 or $12. Be sure to serve your red wine at cellar temperature — put it in the fridge for a little while if necessary.

–Dessert: Death’s Door Wondermint. This spirit is essentially a peppermint schnapps, but it tastes much more elegant and complex than you might expect because of ingredients such as rose water and bitter almond. It costs around $23 a bottle, but because it’s strong, a little goes a long way. Chill well, and serve in a cordial glass with a chocolate dessert or vanilla ice cream.


–Aperitif: Kir Royale. This simple French drink never fails to start a party off right. Traditionally a Kir Royale has a base of Crémant de Bourgogne, but any good dry sparkling wine will do. A decent Prosecco or a quality Cava would work quite well. Add sparkling wine to a flute and top up with a dash of Crème de Cassis, a blackcurrant liqueur.

–First Course: A single-vineyard Riesling from the Pfalz or the Mosel Valley (Mosels tend to be easier to find). You can expect rich fruit matched by lively acids and steely nerve, and all for around $25 to $30. Another delightful alternative would be Savennières from the Loire. Sancerre gets all the attention, which means Savennières tends to be a value for the money. You should be able to find one for about $25.

–Second Course: Something innovative would seem to be in order here. Perhaps a powerful Syrah from Chile. No longer dedicated just to the cheap stuff, Chile has ideal terroir for fine wine, the full potential of which vintners are now truly beginning to exploit. Single-vineyard wines are becoming more and more common here, as well as in neighboring Argentina. A high-quality Austrian St. Laurent would be a delicious alternative, if you can find one.

–Dessert: Ron Zacapa Centenario Sistema Solera 23. This beautiful rum from Guatemala contains spirits ranging in age from six to 23 years. It tastes wonderfully smooth and rich, and it’s a perfect way to end a meal. Zacapa recommends serving it with a single large lump of ice, which I prefer in the summer. But it works equally well neat, should your guests prefer it that way. You should be able to find it for around $50 to $60 a bottle.


–Aperitif: Time for Champagne with a capital “C”. Go for a Grower Champagne, produced by the people who grew the grapes (most Champagnes blend grapes from across the region). You can identify a Grower by the letters “RM,” usually written in the tiniest font possible on the label, as opposed to “NM”, the designation on most other Champagnes.

Alicante Bouschet from the now-defunct Rainbow Ridge winery

Alicante Bouschet from the now-defunct Rainbow Ridge winery

–First Course: The obvious choice would be white Burgundy, and I certainly won’t argue if you want to pour me a glass. For something a little more unusual, opt instead for a white Pessac-Léognan from Bordeaux, redolent of lush tropical fruit. Or a Grosses Gewächs (Great Growth) Riesling would also surely impress the fussiest of guests.

–Second Course: A Bordeaux winemaker once told me that he doesn’t spend more than €100 (about $115) on a bottle of wine, because anything more is just for show. Keeping that advice in mind, I’d recommend a Brunello di Montalcino (Poggione makes some exquisite ones), or Las Terrazas de los Andes “Cheval des Andes,” a wine that gave me chills when I recently tried it in Mendoza.

–Dessert: My favorite dessert wines in the world are Tokaji Aszú from Hungary and Sauternes from France. Both use grapes affected by Noble Rot, making them rich, vibrant and expensive. Nevertheless, the flavor-to-price ratio in each case is quite high. If you prefer a spirit, choose one of these Cognacs that brought me to tears.

As for me, tonight might be the night to open my treasured signed bottle of 2001 Rainbow Ridge Alicante Bouschet, the gayest wine in my rack. I have a feeling that after a long period of waiting, tonight it will be at its very best.

What’s Wrong With Wine Labels

20 June 2015

On a recent trip to New Mexico, I made a point of returning to my favorite winery in the state, Casa Rondeña. I ordered a glass of Meritage in the tasting room, and a gentleman next to me asked how I liked it. “Very much,” I replied. “It’s well-balanced, and a fine example of what New Mexico is capable of in terms of wine.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” he responded, “Since I made it!” I went on to say how pleasantly surprised I was by New Mexico wines, the Cabernet Francs in particular, but I didn’t disclose that I was a wine blogger who had written about Casa Rondeña previously. I was off the clock. “Have you visited any other wineries?” he asked. “Which ones do you like?”

I listed off a few, including St. Clair, where I remembered liking the D.H. Lescombes line of wines. He didn’t agree with that selection. St. Clair, he noted, adds corn syrup or other sugars to many of its wines. I can see why — in New Mexico, the local palate skews heavily towards sweeter wines, so much so that most wineries will taste reds before whites, de-emphasizing the reds’ dryness.

While certainly not illegal, that practice of adding sugars isn’t necessarily the hallmark of great wines. “They really should have to disclose that on their label,” I protested. But they don’t. In fact, beyond noting that they contain sulfites, a completely unnecessary declaration, wines need not list any of their ingredients. Nor, for that matter, do spirits. Just what is in Blue Curaçao, anyway?

How is it that in 2015, in an era of ever-greater concern about the quality of the things we’re putting into our bodies, that wines and spirits can still get away without listing anything other than their alcohol content? Some studies promote a glass or two of red wine a day as a healthy  addition to one’s diet, but surely some red wines are more beneficial than others.

Red wines with added sugar, for example, don’t strike me as the healthiest choice. At the St. Clair Bistro, our waitress offered us free samples of Chenin Blanc. And indeed, it tasted rather flabby and too sweet. I ordered a $13 glass of D.H. Lescombes Cabernet Franc instead, thinking that this more expensive line of wines would surely adhere to higher standards of winemaking.

It tasted quite ripe and free from any vegetal, green-pepper notes which can sometimes plague Cabernet Franc. But vanilla notes overwhelmed the palate, and indeed, it tasted jammier than I expected. Was I imagining that it was overly sweet because of what the owner of Casa Rondeña told me? I took another sip. No — the too-strong vanilla notes were quite clear. I won’t presume to say whether the wine had added sugar or not, however, because I have no way of knowing for sure.

Of course I wouldn’t have to guess, if wines and spirits actually declared their ingredients! All non-alcoholic beverages in the supermarket have lists of ingredients. Even unflavored water lists “Water” as the sole substance in the bottle.

It’s time spirits and wines followed suit. As a consumer, I want to know if my wine contains “Grape juice” or “Grape juice, high-fructose corn syrup and red dye #32.” Price, as indicated by my rather expensive glass of Cabernet Franc, is not necessarily a guide.

Time to write my Congressman!

Regal Wines: Sachsen’s Schloss Proschwitz

9 June 2015
The author and Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe in the Schloss Proschwitz vineyards overlooking Meissen

The author and Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe in the Schloss Proschwitz vineyards overlooking Meissen

Schloss Proschwitz ranks among the unlikeliest — and therefore most delightful — wineries I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit. First, consider its location in Sachsen in former East Germany, at about the same latitude as London. The fact that the Elbe River and its south-facing bluffs create a microclimate well-suited to grape growing is a bit of a miracle. (You can read more about Sachsen in general here.)

Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe among Schloss Proschwitz's custom-designed fermentation tanks

Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe among Schloss Proschwitz’s custom-designed fermentation tanks

Then there is the winery’s tumultuous history, which I learned about when I met Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe for a tour and tasting. A former television news reporter, the unfailingly gracious Prinzessin (that’s what everyone called her at the winery) ordered flutes of sparkling rosé for us as we sat on patio. As we sipped this unusual fruity and rather smoky sparkler made from Frühburgunder (Pinot Madeleine), she began relating the winery’s dramatic post-war story.

The parents of the current owner, the Prinz zur Lippe, did not fare well when the Soviet Red Army invaded eastern Germany. Communists did not look kindly on royalty. They imprisoned his parents and expropriated all their property. Fortunately they were not murdered — instead, after several months spent apart in prison, the Soviets “chucked them into West Germany” with only the clothes on their backs, the Prinzessin exclaimed, her understandable indignation not quite concealed.

Schloss Proschwitz (Proschwitz Palace),  ancestral home of the zur Lippe family

Schloss Proschwitz (Proschwitz Palace), ancestral home of the zur Lippe family, now used for weddings and other events

In need of housing and income, Christian Prinz zur Lippe took a job as a gardener, working for his mother-in-law. His son, Georg Prinz zur Lippe was not, as you might expect of someone with that title, raised in unabashed luxury. He built a successful career for himself as an agricultural engineer, and then the Berlin Wall fell.

His father, still alive at this time, suggested that Georg attempt to recover the family’s property in East Germany. But because the property had been expropriated by the Soviets, not East Germany, the government refused to give anything back. So Georg did things the hard way, negotiating with landowners and convincing banks to loan him money. Eventually, he managed to buy back a large portion of the family’s original vineyards.

The story did not end there, however. The Prinz zur Lippe was not welcomed with open arms back to his ancestral home. In the minds of the East Germans, “My husband was the incarnation of evil,” the Prinzessin explained. “From the West. A prince. He had property that had been expropriated. And he was an entrepreneur!” Like today’s Progressives in the United States, the East Germans had been brainwashed into thinking of capitalists as evil, and that mindset didn’t immediately change with the fall of the Wall. Georg lived for a year in a house on a hill overlooking his new vineyards, during which time all of his neighbors refused to speak with him. It isn’t always easy being the prince.

Entrance to the Schloss Proschwitz winery in Zadel

Entrance to the Schloss Proschwitz winery in Zadel

He also didn’t win any friends when he replanted his vineyards with historically correct but lower-yielding grape varieties, nor when he started employing the latest viticultural methods. Many thought he was insane to drastically reduce pesticide application and restrict yields by cutting off half the grapes and using them to make balsamic vinegar.

But finally Georg and Alexandra started to win the local people over. The sympathetic mayor of the bluff-top town of Zadel offered to sell them a courtyard of historic but dilapidated buildings for their winery. After extensive renovations, Schloss Proschwitz opened a winery, shop and restaurant on the property. It became the first in Sachsen to be admitted to the prestigious VDP, Germany’s top winery association.

In the tasting room, the Prinzessin poured several delightful wines, leaving no doubt as to the potential of Sachsen terroir. A rare Goldriesling (a seldom-cultivated Muscat crossing) had an enticingly floral and spicy aroma, food-friendly green-apple tartness and a mineral finish. The Proschwitz Elbing, an ancient and now-unpopular variety cultivated since Roman times, had a surprisingly colorless hue, a powdered candy aroma and fun, juicy acids. Either would be perfect for a pool party.

The Schloss Proschwitz tasting room and shop

The Schloss Proschwitz tasting room and shop

We also tried some more serious wines, such as the 2014 Weissburgunder Kabinett from the Schloss Proschwitz Vineyard. This Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder translates literally as “White Burgundy”) smelled fresh and spicy. It tasted fruity and cheerful but very focused, with clear minerality. The 2012 Weissburgunder from the Heiligenkreuz Vineyard, in contrast, had more white fruit and cream in the aroma. It tasted very ripe, even with a note of caramel, and it finished on quite a spicy note. I never thought to age Pinot Blanc, but the 2012 clearly illustrated the benefits of a couple of years in the bottle.

But when we reached the 2013 Weissburgunder Grosses Gewächs, the Prinzessin became concerned.  When I smelled this Pinot Blanc, I let out a laugh and a whoop and said “Yeah!” just a little too loudly. Her eyes widened, and she asked the woman behind the desk to bring bread.

Terrace of the winery's restaurant

Terrace of the winery’s restaurant

“We’ll be having lunch soon…” she said, clearly convinced I was drunk. But I had spit everything I’d tasted up to that point. It smelled so good, this wine, that I couldn’t help but laugh and shout. “Grosses Gewächs” translates as “Great Growth,” a designation something like Grand Cru in Burgundy. And this wine was great.

I would have guessed it was a white Burgundy, but not a Pinot Blanc. The aroma had such richness, with ripe fruit and fresh butter and wood. And the flavor! Drinking it was like driving in a car with an expert at manual transmission — it shifted with incredible suppleness from ripe, ripe fruit to classy acids to focused spice. It was a gorgeous, elegant wine.

I had to have it. Terrified of what I might have to spend for a wine of this quality, I looked at the price list on the bar. It cost 25€, or about $28 a bottle. I must admit I’m not used to spending $28 on a bottle of wine, but it seemed like a crazy bargain in this case. Who knew Pinot Blanc could reach such heights?

We had yet more delicious wines over lunch, notably a surprisingly ripe 2011 Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) redolent of red currants and earth. And I thought, my God! How wonderful how completely the communists had failed. They took everything from the zur Lippe family except one set of clothes per person. And yet here they were, once again making truly world-class wines from their ancestral vineyards, providing jobs to about 100 people. The power of history — and the power of the entrepreneur — couldn’t have been clearer.

Sachsen: East Germany’s Great Wine Secret

26 May 2015
Along the Saxon Wine Road

Along the Saxon Wine Road

I made a terrible mistake on my recent visit to Dresden. I allowed only one day to explore Germany’s smallest and easternmost wine region, Sachsen (Saxony). Even in Germany, this landscape of charming little towns and vineyards terraced into bluffs above the Elbe River is little known, and prejudices about “East German wine” have not entirely disappeared. And who can blame anyone for not rushing out to tour the vineyards of former East Germany?



As The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia ruefully notes, “Wines have been produced in this area for nearly 1,000 years, but it took [East Germany] less than 50 years to erase… once-well-known names from the memory of wine drinkers.” The region was important enough to house Germany’s first viticultural training institute, which, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, was established in Meissen in 1811-12.

Then phylloxera hit, followed closely by World War I. The region started to bounce back a bit just in time for World War II to start. The communist regime which took over after the war had little interest in quality wine, nor in the terraces where the vineyards once grew — growing grapes on the slopes was labor-intensive and expensive. Few vineyards were replanted, and many terraces fell into disrepair. The Elbe Valley has yet to fully recover from this time of neglect, though vineyard plantings increased dramatically after Germany reunification to about 1,100 acres.

Looking at a map, it seems insane to try to grow fine-wine grapes here, at a latitude about even with London. But as The World Atlas of Wine explains, Sachsen’s “much more continental climate frequently blesses [it] with magnificent summers, even if the risk of serious spring frosts is high.” The Elbe River helps moderate the cold, and the relatively steep south-facing slopes provide an ideal microclimate in which to ripen grapes. In fact, as the Atlas goes on to say, the best wineries “manage to produce dry wines of remarkable substance and character for their northerly location.”

Frédéric Fourré's 2013 Kerner & Gutedel

Frédéric Fourré’s 2013 Kerner & Gutedel

And what a location! I drove out of Dresden following the south bank of the Elbe, and it didn’t take long for vineyards to appear, tumbling down to the occasional 18th- or 19th-century villa. The road took me through a number of well-preserved towns, each of which had its share of inviting wine taverns.

By this point in my trip, I had already tried a number of local wines in Dresden restaurants, most of which have at least two or three Sachsen bottlings on their menus. At Caroussel, one of Dresden’s Michelin-starred restaurants, I sampled a Frédéric Fourré blend of Kerner and Gutedel (Chasselas) with aromas of honeysuckle and spice and a green-apple tartness that worked wonderfully with food. Sitting outside at Pulverturm an der Frauenkirche, I sipped a peachy and floral Schloss Wackerbarth Bacchus, a crossing of Silvaner and Riesling with Müller Thurgau, which had enough juicy, lemony oomph to more than match my dish of char with creamed leeks. And a Schloss Proschwitz rosé of Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) and Dornfelder, with a heady strawberry aroma and a rich powdered-candy quality, proved to be the high point of my meal at the riverside Canaletto restaurant.

Schloss Proschwitz appeared time and time again on the wine lists of high-end restaurants in Dresden, and each of the reference books cited above notes Schloss Proschwitz as one of the top wineries in the area.

It was with some excitement, then, that I passed the spiky Gothic skyline of Meissen and neared Schloss Proschwitz itself, where I had an appointment with owner Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe.

Up Next: Wine tasting with the Princess.

My Buttons Get Pushed

21 May 2015

Wine All-in-One For DummiesIt will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I have a soft spot for an underdog. That’s one of the reasons I love to highlight unusual and obscure wines and spirits. It gives me great joy to write about wonderful bottles that far too few people know about, and wine regions that don’t get nearly the attention they should.

It was with some irritation, then, that I listened to a woman at a recent lunch held to promote Chablis complain about the state of Chicago wine lists. “Nowadays, sommeliers here seem to think the weirder, the better,” she opined, “and I think they’re not doing their job of educating the consumer about wines they really should know about.”

I thought about it, and I realized that this judgmental comment most likely results from her feeling threatened: If someone considers themselves to be something of an expert in wine, and a wine list confronts them with all sorts of unfamiliar options, it potentially calls their expertise into question. I wish instead that she would look at such moments as opportunities to learn and grow as a wine consumer. But I know that’s difficult — for some of us, myself included, it takes some effort to keep our wine knowledge and our self-esteem untied.

Later at lunch we discussed the price of Chablis, which tends to be much lower than other white Burgundies. “The Chicago wine consumer just isn’t as sophisticated,” she suggested, irritating me yet further. “So you can’t charge as much as you might in, say, San Francisco or New York.”

I protested, but her neighbor at the table agreed. “No no, the wine scene is definitely more sophisticated in New York and San Fran. You could charge a lot more for a bottle like this,” he said, gesturing to a Premier Cru, “in Manhattan than you could in Chicago. The consumers there know that it’s worth the money.”

I felt defensive of Chicago and our wine scene. I’ve always taken pride in Chicago wine shops and wine lists, which tend to offer a surprising breadth of wines from around the world. Lacking a wine region of our own, we serve wines from everywhere. And we have demanding palates as well, as evidenced by our weird (some might say adventurous) wine lists.

But you’ve no need to take my word for it. Lettie Teague, the New York-based wine columnist for the Wall Street Journal wrote a fascinating article in 2011 comparing the wine scenes in Manhattan and Chicago. She gives the edge to her home town, but if you look at the evidence she presents, Chicago appears at the very least to tie the Big Apple in terms of wine sophistication.

I still wondered, though, if the Chicago disparagers across the dining table from me could be right. Were New Yorkers more willing to pay for quality than Chicagoans? Does the wine market there bear higher prices?

With so many Chablis producers each producing a variety of wines, it can be difficult to compare apples to apples. After some hunting, I finally found a store in Chicago and a store in New York each selling exactly the same wine: the 2012 Louis Michel & Fils Les Clos, a Grand Cru Chablis. Binny’s, which ranks among Chicago’s best-priced wine shops because of its immense size, sells the wine for $89.99 a bottle. Flatiron Wines & Spirits in Manhattan, however, sells the wine for $84.99.

While not thrilled that Chicago has a higher price for this Chablis than New York, I can’t deny feeling vindicated.

Chicago may be the Second City — pancake-flat and in the middle of the Midwest — but that doesn’t mean we don’t know what we’re doing. You don’t have to go to New York or San Francisco to get great wine anymore. That duopoly ended years ago, and it isn’t just Chicago that ended it. You can find compelling wine lists and wine shops in all manner of cities around the country these days.

New York, San Francisco, you’re fantastic. I love you. But the rest of the country is doing just fine.

Postcard From Sachsen

10 May 2015
Saxony's Schloss Wackerbarth

On the grounds of Sachsen’s Schloss Proschwitz

If you haven’t heard about wine from Sachsen (Saxony), Germany’s smallest wine region, you’re not alone. Even many Germans are unaware that Sachsen produces wine, let alone wine of real character.

Vineyards along the Elbe

Vineyards along the Elbe

Because I’ve visited Dresden twice before, I knew that the area — the most northeasterly wine region in Germany — had vineyards. But because I’d always stayed in the city, I had no idea how beautiful the vineyards were. The Sächsische Weinstrasse (Saxon Wine Road) follows the Elbe River outside Dresden in the former East, passing by terraced vineyards, wine taverns and elaborate villas. I found it startlingly beautiful.

Even more startling was the quality of some of the wine I tasted, ranging from elegant Méthode Champenoise Sekt to barrique-aged Weissburgunder of true Burgundian richness, balance and depth.

Rapeseed field near Meissen

Rapeseed field near Meissen

How has this surpassingly beautiful region escaped notice, even in its home country? Part of the problem, I suspect, is that the idea of “wine from former East Germany” doesn’t sound especially promising. Also problematic is that almost none of the wine is exported.

I foolishly allowed only one day to explore the wineries of Saxony on this trip, but what a day! It involved not only wine, but a castle and a princess as well. A post devoted to it will be coming shortly.

Chablis: An Underestimated Treasure

25 April 2015

Chablis TastingChablis, as I wrote in my previous post, is not to be confused with “Chablis” from California, a mistake I made myself until I was in my mid-20s. Bland Californian “Chablis” has nothing to do with the real thing from northern Burgundy, a fact driven home by the deliciously focused and forceful examples of Chablis I tasted at a recent lunch held to promote the wines.

Californian “Chablis” harmed (and continues to harm) the reputation of real Chablis, but the region had even bigger problems to overcome before it became the generally stable and successful appellation it is today. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Chablis owed much of its early success to its proximity to Paris. But the railways bypassed the region in the mid-19th century, cheap wines from the Midi became more popular in the French capital, and by the 1950s, Chablis vineyards had shrunk to just 1,250 acres.

In the 1960s, technology enabled the Chablis winemakers to better guard against frost damage, a serious problem in these northerly vineyards, giving them more income security and stability. Vineyards were replanted — in fact, some even argue that too many are now in production — and Chablis has expanded to more than 10,000 acres of vines today.

Petit Chablis, such as the one described in my previous post, come from the least-desirable vineyards, though that doesn’t mean they’re bad wines. The categories move up from there to Chablis, Premier Cru Chablis and Grand Cru Chablis, with the vineyards’ exposure to the sun counting as the most important factor. At this lunch, we had the fortune to sample at least one example of each category, allowing us to easily compare and contrast.

The Petit Chablis made for a refreshing aperitif, and I also quite liked the 2012 Domaine William Fèvre “Champs Royaux” Chablis made from “the best grapes from a variety of vineyards,” according to one of our hosts, vintner Louis Moreau. It had a very fresh and green aroma with some spiciness, like green peppercorns mixed with fresh green hay. It felt focused and fresh and tight, with amply juicy acids and some slate-like minerals on the finish.

Mr. Moreau also poured one of his own wines, a 2012 Domaine Louis Moreau Vaillons Premier Cru, which comes from the southeast-facing Vaillons vineyard on a hillside immediately southwest of the town of Chablis. I loved its aroma, a mix of white pepper and some brininess, like perfectly fresh raw scallops (that may not sound appealing to some, but it really was delightful). There was that wonderful Chablis focus again, with tightly controlled white-pepper spice and the classic minerality on the finish. This Premier Cru had such clarity and elegance, but it had a rounder, richer character than either the Chablis or the Petit Chablis.

Mussels with ChablisWe tasted two other expertly crafted Premier Cru wines, a well-balanced 2012 Domaine Laroche Vau de Vey Premier Cru and a delicate 2012 Louis Michel & Fils Montée de Tonnerre Premier Cru. Like the Louis Moreau, both had zesty acids making them work beautifully with food.

And then there was the superlative 2011 Domaine Christian Moreau Père et Fils Valmur Grand Cru. My World Atlas of Wine calls Chablis from the Valmur vineyard “some critics’ ideal: rich and fragrant.” I’m certainly not one to disagree with the Atlas — this wine was an absolute delight. It had a spicy aroma marked by notes of popcorn. Some Chablis can be almost austere, but this Grand Cru had real richness. It started ripe and round and then focused into taut laser beam of white-pepper spice. Gorgeously balanced and very elegant.

Cheese plate with ChablisThat these wines are so delicious is perhaps not especially surprising, but the prices for which they can be had are truly eye-popping. I checked Wine Searcher for prices on the Grand Cru described above, and I found retailers offering it for as little as $54 (though $65 is more representative). It’s rare to be able to drink wine of this caliber for $65, and it’s an absolute steal when you compare it to the prices for Grand Cru wines from the Côte d’Or a little to the south. The hard-to-find Louis Moreau Premier Cru runs for about $60, the Domaine Laroche costs $42, and the Louis Michel can be had for $35. Excellent values, all.

Some of my sources, notably the curmudgeonly Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, complain that Chablis can be inconsistent, and that may very well be. I recommend chatting with a trusted wine shop employee or sommelier in order to get a reliable recommendation, because different producers working with fruit from the same vineyard can handle it very differently, and vintages can vary significantly.

With that caveat in mind, I highly recommend giving Chablis a try. It’s not necessarily an inexpensive wine, but the value for the money is hard to beat. As The World Atlas of Wine says, “For all its fame, Chablis is one of the wine world’s most underestimated treasures.”

“Chablis” and Chablis

18 April 2015
Photo of Chablis by Christophe Finot

Photo of Chablis by Christophe Finot

I’m afraid that until I was in my mid-20s, I thought of “Chablis” as a low-quality California wine, not far removed from “Blush.” I must have realized Chablis was a French word, but that was as close as I got to the truth. It wasn’t until I was laid off from a luxury travel company that real Chablis revealed itself to me.

My boss felt guilty about having to let me go, it seems, and he offered to arrange a free week on a canal barge in Burgundy. I had nothing better to do, certainly, and I was more than happy to help assuage his guilt by taking a mostly free trip to France. It was early in 2003, and I was able to find airfare for just $385 to Paris. That was just one unemployment check, so I figured, why not?

The vineyards of Chablis

A map of the vineyards of Chablis

The barge arrived one morning in Tonnerre, and we made an excursion to the town of Chablis for a tasting in a cellar. It was eye-opening, to say the least. How had I never tried this wonderful wine, I remember thinking. It was nothing at all like the wan “Chablis” of California. Later we took in views of the grey-stone village from the Grand Cru vineyards rising directly above it. The ground was littered with fossilized clumps of oyster shells, making it clear why Chablis has such wonderful minerality and why it pairs so well with oysters. The vines’ roots suck up microscopic oyster bits every day.

I went through a bit of a Chablis phase after that visit, but since starting this blog, I must admit I’ve been ignoring them in favor of less famous wines. But just because Chablis is famous doesn’t mean it’s especially popular or well-understood.

It may be part of Burgundy, but its vineyards are actually closer to the southern part of Champagne than they are to Beaune, the heart of the Côte d’Or. The wines of Chablis are completely different from those of the Côte d’Or, even though both are Chardonnay. The best rank among the world’s top whites. In spite of this high quality, “Grand Cru Chablis, largely ignored by the world’s fine-wine traders, remains even now half the price of Corton-Charlemagne,” according to The World Atlas of Wine, which goes on to argue that “Parity would be closer to justice.”

And therein lies the beauty of Chablis, and why it belongs in this blog devoted to the unusual. Top Burgundies, now unfortunately popular with status-conscious millionaires in China and oligarchs in Russia, have skyrocketed in price, putting them out of reach for most of us. But top Chablis regularly sells for $70 to $90. A splurge, certainly, but not out of the realm of reason for a special occasion.

Chablis LunchAt a recent lunch promoting Chablis, I was reminded what a startling value this wine can be. We tasted the full range of styles, from the much-maligned Petit Chablis all the way up to a Grand Cru. The wines brought me right back to that revelatory tasting in 2003.

I can’t deny I felt skeptical about the Petit Chablis, because in doing some research before the tasting, I read in The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia that “…this appellation should be downgraded to VDQS or uprooted.” Harsh words, even for ever-curmudgeonly Sotheby’s.

But the 2012 Domaine Millet “La Perle” Petit Chablis tasted quite good, in fact: fresh, bright, cheerful and juicy. It made for an excellent aperitif. I wouldn’t recommend picking any old Petit Chablis off the shelf, but as this example illustrates, even grapes from the region’s lowliest vineyards can be crafted into something quite pleasant.

Because of Chablis’ northern location, its vineyards tend to be classified according to sun exposure as much as anything. Southern-facing slopes are the most prized, because grapes there will ripen most fully. Petit Chablis vines occupy land with the least favorable aspect. But that is less of a problem than it used to be, according to vintner Louis Moreau, one of our gracious hosts at the lunch. “We achieve ripeness every year now thanks to global warming,” he asserted, “and there is no greenness as we used to get in some vintages.” He went on to explain that 30 years ago, they harvested the grapes in October, but now, the harvest has moved as much as three weeks earlier, well into September.

What does this mean for the consumer? Vintages in Chablis are as inconsistent as ever, Moreau admitted, because of stormier weather and unpredictable temperature fluctuations. Nevertheless, ripeness, which is so important in northern regions like Chablis, is less of a concern. That means that even grapes in vineyards classified as Petit Chablis, which are the least likely to ripen fully, will tend to produce rounder and more balanced wines than in decades past.

Of course, Chablis is more than just a pleasant aperitif, as amply demonstrated by the wines paired with our lunch. But they deserve a post all their own.

Up Next: Delving into the most exciting wines of Chablis, and defending the sophistication of the Chicago wine consumer.

Postcards From New York City

10 April 2015

New York has an all-too-beguiling array of craft cocktail lounges and wine bars. I had a wonderful time on my last visit, mostly confined to Lower Manhattan. But this time, for reasons too tedious to explain, I maintained a relatively tight radius around Times Square.

Times Square, in case there’s any doubt, may be “The Crossroads of the World,” but it hardly qualifies as an epicenter of fine drinking or dining. Overgrown, bloated versions of chains such as Olive Garden and Bubba Gump Shrimp are the order of the day, and, most notoriously, Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar (the New York Times review of the place ranks among the greatest restaurant take-downs of all time).

Nevertheless, with a little digging, I discovered some perfectly pleasant places for drinks and dinner just a short walk from the heart of dining darkness.

Standing Stone Vineyards Riesling

At Thalia on the corner of 50th and 8th, I found a local wine on the by-the-glass list, the only New York wine I encountered during my stay: a 2013 Standing Stone Vineyards Riesling from the Finger Lakes. The waiter didn’t really sell it — he described it as “Not too sweet. Just a little sweet. It’s good. You know, it’s good.” He seemed to be trying to convince himself as much as me.

I quite liked it, actually. It had an aroma of light honeysuckle, a little orange blossom and that telltale note I describe as “fresh shower curtain” which many Rieslings from the Finger Lakes seem to exhibit. It’s much pleasanter than it sounds. The flavor was well-balanced, with ripe pear and red apple fruit balanced by broad, orangey acids. There was a bit of sweetness there, but it finished dry. And most important, it worked well with a spicy tuna and scallop tartar.

Honeysuckle Cocktail at Charlie Palmer at The Knick

Charlie Palmer at The Knick just opened, and judging by all the empty tables around us, it’s still a bit of a secret, despite it’s location on the corner of 42nd and Broadway (its fourth-floor setting doesn’t attract foot traffic). It’s a refreshingly quiet place for a drink or dinner in this overrun neighborhood.

I tried a Honeysuckle cocktail (above), made from Appleton Estate V/X Rum, lemon juice, honey and Yellow Chartreuse, which tasted delightfully sweet, citrusy and floral. Unfortunately, balance eluded my friend’s Old Fashioned, an overly sweet and syrupy concoction of Elijah Craig 12-year-old Bourbon, Demerara sugar syrup and Giffard Crème de Pêche.

Bar Centrale

The classic cocktails at Bar Centrale may not have been especially unusual, but they tasted perfectly balanced and carefully crafted. Hidden in an unmarked brownstone townhouse on 46th and 8th, this bar is perfect for an insidery-feeling pre- or post-theater drink.

My Sidecar (cognac, orange liqueur and lemon juice) was right on the money. My friend ordered an Aviation, a drink of gin, maraschino liqueur, lemon juice and crème de violette which can all too easily become a syrupy perfume bomb. But the bartender mixed it perfectly. I could clearly identify an almond note from the maraschino liqueur, and the floral flavor of the crème de violette remained just under the surface, where it belonged.

To ensure that you have comfortable seating, reserve a table in advance.

Rum House

Fans of the film “Birdman” will recognize The Rum House as the bar in which Riggan confronted the drama critic. We visited on a Saturday afternoon at about 5 p.m. and had no trouble getting a table, which felt like a mini-miracle in a neighborhood thronged with theater patrons. I loved the buzzing-but-cozy atmosphere, and the drinks we ordered were beyond reproach.

My Rum Old Fashioned, though unorthodox, worked beautifully. It moved from molasses sweetness to an appealingly bitter and spicy finish. I felt very suspicious of my friend’s cocktail, The Escape, a piña colada-like blend of dark rum, coconut cream, pineapple juice and sweet vermouth. I anticipated the usual boring milkshake-like flavor, but this drink wasn’t just a sugar attack. It had a delightful nutty quality, and even a bit of depth afforded by the vermouth.

Alamos Malbec

Most unusual of all was this complimentary bottle of 2014 Alamos Malbec I discovered waiting for me in my hotel room. You’ll notice how vigorously the name had been crossed out with a Sharpie marker. Was the wine poisoned? Was it cursed? I couldn’t tell, so I left it with some local friends and hopped a plane out of town.

Sorry, Chad and Kevin! Open with caution!

« Previous PageNext Page »