Prosecco: The Good Stuff

30 August 2019
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A hotsy-totsy bottle also helps differentiate high-end Prosecco from the basic stuff.

How many parties have I attended at which I spotted a bottle of cheap Prosecco, perhaps even served in a red plastic cup? Frankly, it’s usually a relief — I’d much rather sip a $10 Prosecco than a Barefoot Bubbly or some such. Even inexpensive Prosecco is usually cheerful and well-balanced, if not anything worth deep contemplation. Really, though, what more can one ask from a party wine?

But cheap and cheerful is not Prosecco’s only mood, as reaffirmed by a recent lunch I attended that was hosted by the Consorzio Tutela del Vino Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco. (Full disclosure: The lunch and wines were provided free of charge.) We tried seven different Proseccos, all of which exhibited complexity as well as food-friendliness. The trick is that these were all classified as Prosecco Superiore DOCG.

Most Proseccos, and certainly the most inexpensive ones, are classed as DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata). These wines come from grapes grown anywhere within the DOC zone — Italy’s largest DOC, in fact — an expanse of almost 35,000 acres. Most of this DOC is flat and relatively unexciting, at least in vinous terms.

The vineyards with more potential for high quality are in the smaller DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) zone. The approximately 15,000 acres of the Prosecco DOCG occupy picturesque hills around the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, hence the consorzio’s rather unwieldy name. Fortunately for the non-Italian-speaking consumer, there is no need to remember the name of the consorzio or the towns. If you look for Prosecco with the letters DOCG on the label, you’re off to a good start.

Meyer lemon semifreddo with fresh berries and cardamom granola at Sepia

Terroir geeks will want to go one step further and look for the word “Rive,” which indicates that the grapes for the Prosecco were grown on an especially notable site. We tried two such Proseccos at the lunch. The 2018 Sommariva Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Rive di S. Michele Extra Dry had an enticing orangey aroma, sharp and frothy bubbles, and notes of sweet chalk and dark citrus. It was an excellent pairing with some salmon topped with preserved lemon-caper butter. And the 2018 Adami Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Vigneto Giardino Asciutto Rive di Colbertaldo — good gracious, just writing out the names of these wines doubles the word count of this article — felt ripe and lush but pointy, with juicy acids and elegantly sharp bubbles. It was just sweet enough to pair with some Meyer lemon semifreddo.

The drier Proseccos we tried were also delicious (“extra dry” is, confusingly, not as dry as “dry” or “brut”). There was the ethereal NV Bisol Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Jeio Brut, which had notes of melon and citrus; its round, full mouthfeel evaporated into prickly froth. The NV Villa Sandi Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze Brut La Riveta smelled of chalk, lime and stone fruit, and though its acids and bubbles were zesty, it felt classy, finishing on a mineral note (the word “Cartizze” on a label is also encouraging; the vineyards there are particularly well-regarded). I also enjoyed the well-balanced and elegant 2018 Col Sandago Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Vigna del Cuc Brut, which we sipped as an aperitif.

Only the 2017 BiancaVigna Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Rive di Soligo Dossagio Zero was not to my taste. This bottle had lots of promising words on its label — Superiore, Rive, DOCG — but two of those words were deal-breakers for me: Dossagio Zero. The equivalent of “Zero Dosage” or “Brut Nature,” Dossagio Zero means, essentially, that the wine is bone-dry (see here for a more in-depth explanation). I like dry wine, up to a point. But sugar in wine can be like salt in food. You need a little bit sometimes, for balance. This wine tasted bracingly tart on its own and was palatable only when paired with food. There surely are some good sparkling wines that are Dossagio Zero, Zero Dosage or Brut Nature, but I have tasted precious few of them.

Prosecco Superiore DOCG costs more than Prosecco DOC, of course, and some of you may well be wondering if it’s really worth the extra money. If the descriptions above don’t convince you, consider watching the video below, in which we blind-taste a Mionetto Prosecco DOC against a Mionetto Prosecco Superiore DOCG. They cost about $10 and $20, respectively, which means that the difference between them ought to be readily apparent. We put that hypothesis to the test:

Note: The lunch and Proseccos described in the post above were provided free of charge. The wines in the video we purchased at full retail price.

Beyond Cabernet: Sensational Sparkling Wine In Napa

11 June 2019
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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.

Three Great Wine Questions

29 December 2018

Instead of shooting Name That Wine episodes about whatever we felt like, as was long our habit, we decided to find out what our viewers wanted to know. What were the questions about wine they were burning to know the answers to?

We shot short videos answering three questions that we loved and that suited the season, regarding rosé in winter, bringing wine to a party and choosing the perfect wine with the help of an app. Liz and I give our well-considered (if perhaps not entirely sober) advice.

Look for more Viewer Question episodes soon, with our thoughts about things like wine and migraines, and how to decipher wine labels. In the meantime, we tackle these three topics:

“Rosé is for summer only?”

“When you want to bring wine as a gift for the host but don’t know if they prefer red/white/sparkling, what are some great go-to’s?”

“Total novice stands in wine section of market. (Costco or Trader Joe’s, let’s say.) iPhone in hand. What internet site will help me choose well? Um. Asking for a friend.”

Do YOU have a wine question you would like us to answer in an upcoming episode of Name That Wine? Send it to us! You can click on one of the videos above and write it in the comments section, or send it via email to

Cheers and Happy New Year!

What To Buy The Wine Geek For Christmas

16 December 2018
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Sparkling wine is always a welcome gift. I recently fell in love with this Keush Origins Brut from Armenia that I found at In Fine Spirits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have enough corkscrews.

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

Here’s how to pick out the perfect wine:

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

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

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

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

So do we all have a deal?

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

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