Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Yes, There ARE great Sparklers that are not French!

After talking about the wonderful sparkling wines from France, it’s important to talk about the great wines from other regions of the world as there are some excellent ones and they are often great value plays.

Spain perhaps offers the best bargains in the wine world and sparkling wines are no exception. These wines are made by the Methode Champenois like their French counterparts (secondary fermentation in the bottle). The grapes are different – Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo being the major varietals. Spanish Cavas are minerally, dry with crisp flavors. The bubbles tend to be a little bigger and more exuberant than the French bubblies, and for this reason, Cavas are one of my two choices when making Mimosas and Bellinis as they stand up to the juice. They are wonderful on their own, though, and the prices are amazing. My favorite is Mercat, which comes as a Brut or a Brut Nature (see last week’s article). There are mineral driven aromas of orchard fruits, with a perfectly balanced acidity. Both are awesome for a mere $13.99. So you can buy it by the case for your New Year’s party and still impress.

Freixenet, in its familiar black bottle, is also a Cava, and is a bargain for making those mimosas at under $10 a bottle. For a mere $22.99 you can get an outstanding Cava, Raventos i Blanc, a beautifully balanced wine with delicate minerally stone fruit aromas and flavors. This will give $40 Champagnes a real run for their money.

There are many fine sparkling wines made in America, especially in California, Washington and..…New Mexico. The Gruet family, owners of a champagne house in France, were vacationing in the American Southwest when they ran into a group of vintners in Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico. They gave it a whirl and now make a wide array of wonderful sparkling wines priced at about $16.99. They are all good, but for those liking sweeter wines, the Demi Sec is one of this country’s best and their Brut Rose is outstanding.

California has many estates that make good sparkling wines in partnership with French houses. Mumm Napa, Domain Carneros (with Tattinger), Chandon, and Piper Sonoma all make good sparkling wines in the $15-20 range. Schramsburg makes beautiful sparklers, and they are vintage wines. The Blanc de Blancs was served at Nixon’s “Toast to Peace” with China’s Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972 and has been served at state functions by just about every administration since. Priced at $29.99, these wines are an excellent alternative to $40 and $50 Champagnes. Roederer Estate makes a great Brut for $20 and a more costly ($50) L’Ermitage Vintage version that is really, REALLY good.

Treveri is a family owned estate in the Columbia Valley in Washington State, and their sparklers are fantastic for the price. They make a Brut and an Extra Brut with zero dosage (meaning very, VERY dry) that drink like they cost $30 or $40 instead of the $13.49 price tag.

All of the above wines are made in the traditional method, but another group of sparkling wines from Italy are made in a different way. The secondary fermentation is done in tanks and then the wine is bottled, the so called Charmat method. This is less expensive, and these wines, called Prosecco, are great values. The grape used is called Glera, and although most are called Brut, there is enough residual sugar to make them somewhere between a Brut and an Extra Dry. The bubbles are big and exuberant, which, along with the low price, make Prosecco ideal for Mimosas and “Champagne cocktails.” La Marca, at $12.49, is a top seller as is Cavit’s Lunetta for the same price. My favorites are Le Coulture Sylvoz, a true Brut at $12.49, and probably the best one made, Alice (pronounced a-LEECH-ae). This estate is owned by a woman, the winemaker is a woman, and the wine is named after the owner’s grandmother. The bubbles are surprisingly fine and there are wonderful flavors of stone fruit and minerals. The label is even elegant in this $22.99 wine.

New Year’s is a time for celebrating what was and what is to be. Hopefully this and my previous installment will help you in your endeavors to do so. I, as well as the staff at Liquor Mart, want to wish you all the happiest holiday season and the happiest of New Years. I am looking forward to another year of writing what I hope are enjoyable and informative articles to help expand your wine knowledge and appreciation.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Time for Bubbly!
Part One - France

Once again the holidays are approaching and everybody is turning his attention to sparkling wine to ring in the New Year. Many people come in the store looking for “Champagne” but when I tell them a drinkable Champagne starts at $25.00 or so on sale, they realize that what they are looking for is sparkling wine. Champagne is sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France. The grapes must be from that region and secondary fermentation must occur in the bottle (Methode Champenois or Traditionelle). The wine is fermented and bottled. Yeast is then added, and the secondary fermentation results in bubbles which are trapped in the bottle. Champagnes tend to be pricy, starting in the upper twenty dollar range, with most being in the $40-80s and some reaching several hundred dollars. Champagne is made from three grape varietals—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.

Sparkling wines are made in many other parts of France and the world, and many are extraordinary. I will talk about those made in France today, and in the next article I’ll explore those from other countries. All the wines discussed here are made in the same way as those in Champagne, although they may be made from different grapes. More importantly, they are significantly less expensive.

Sparkling wines from the tiny town of Limoux, in Southwestern France offer great value. This is actually the birthplace of sparkling wines. The monks in the Abbey of St Hilaire discovered secondary fermentation and put it to use in 1536. A local varietal, Mauzac, is the primary grape used, along with small amounts of Chardonnay. These wines are fresh and dry with flavors of apple and pear and a beautiful acidity. Elegance Blanquette de Limoux is my every day sparkler and is a bargain at $12.99. Buy cases of this for your New Years Eve party!

The region of Burgundy is home to Cave Lugny Cremant de Bourgogne. (cremant basically means a sparkling wine made in France but not made in Champagne). This wine is made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and has a beautiful minerality and acidity, delicate perlage (tiny, delicate bubbles) and nuances of brioche and apple. This is an elegant, flavorful bubbly that costs only $16.99 and drinks like it is a lot more expensive.

Alsace is a region famous for its white wines – Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer. They make wonderful sparkling wine as well, and my favorite is Lucien Albrecht’s Cremant D’Alsace, a beautiful sparkler made from 100% Pinot Blanc. It has a very fine perlage and delicate nose and flavors of apple and pear. This is a delicious wine that rivals $40 Champagnes and has performed very well against them in private tastings that I have done. At $18.99, a single bottle simply will not suffice.

Our final stop before Champagne is another northerly region, the Loire Valley. This is the home of sparkling Vouvray. Wines from this appellation are made from 100% Chenin Blanc. The Francois Pinon Brut is a fantastic example. Sourced from organic vineyards, this wine is a perfect expression of terroir, orchard fruits, spices, and minerals. This would be $22.99 very well spent.

This leads us to the “Mother of all Sparkling Wine,” Champagne. Nothing suggests celebration more than a bottle of this sparkler. Of course, the most well known are those from the big houses that buy from up to hundreds of growers and then literally assemble the wines in the cellar from many lots, thus keeping their style consistent year after year. Well known examples are Moet Chandon Imperial Brut and Veuve Cliquote Yellow label Brut. Priced in the $39-45 range during the holidays, these are beautiful, minerally wines with hints of apples and pear, creamy delicate perlage, and bracing acidity. One of my very favorites in this group is Billecart – Salmon Reserve Brut. At $52.99, this is one of the very best non vintage champagnes one can find done in a traditional house style. Rosé versions of most of these Champagnes can be found but are in limited quantities and are more expensive. Billecart makes probably the best non
vintage rosé Champagne I’ve ever had but will set you back $86.99 for the experience.

There are two versions of Champagnes that are becoming better known and are well worth searching out. First is the so called Brut Nature or Extra Brut. After fermentation, a small plug of yeast and debris is removed from the bottle. The resulting space is filled with a tiny amount of still wine and sugar. If the amount of sugar is small, the result is Brut (every wine discussed so far has been Brut). A little more sugar results in Extra Dry and a little more results in Demi Sec. With Brut Nature or Extra Brut, essentially no sugar is added and these are bone dry, steely, minerally wines that are truly beautiful. Francis Boulard Les Murgiers Brut Nature, a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, is my favorite at a cost of $49.99.

Grower Champagnes are the wines I feel that anyone who wants to experience the true “Champagne Experience” needs to search out. These estates have their own vineyards and bottle their wines after each harvest. They often save lots from previous vintages to blend in with the current vintage to make the wine more consistent year after year, but they still demonstrate incredible character approaching that of vintage Champagnes. Champagne Piollot, a blend of 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay, is loaded with minerals, orchard fruit, and notes of fresh baked bread, the latter being a characteristic usually only seen in vintage Champagnes. At $37.49, this is probably the best value on the entire sparkling wine aisle. Champagne Aubry is another excellent example at $48.99.

Finally, at the top of the heap, are the Vintage Champagnes. These wines are made only in years when conditions allow for the best quality grapes and only grapes from that vintage are used and the bottle is labeled with the year of the harvest. These are the very best Champagnes that are meant to age into otherworldy wines. Perhaps the most well known are Moet’s Dom Perignon and Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame. These wines are excellent at release, but if you have the will power, put one in your cellar for ten years and you’ll find out what all the fuss is about. Upon opening, the nose of yeasty brioche makes you feel like you are standing in a bakery. This is followed by complex aromas and flavors of apple, honey and minerals, and baking spices. These wines are magnificent. You might actually forget you paid $130-$200 for the experience.

You can celebrate with style no matter what your budget, so get in on the act and enjoy! Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Nebbiolo—Italy’s Noble (and finicky) Grape

Most people who know me at the store will attest to my love of Italian wines. So it was inevitable that I’d write about Italy’s noblest of grapes, Nebbiolo. It is essentially found only in the region of Piedmont, in northwestern Italy at the foot of the Alps, and is grown almost nowhere else in Italy or in the world for that matter—only a few small and relatively unsuccessful attempts in the U.S, Australia, South America, and Mexico. That is because the region’s unique continental climate tempered by the Tanaro River combined with the soil type cannot be replicated anywhere else.

Nebbiolo is derived from nebbia, which is Piedmontese for the fog that envelopes the region during harvest in October. It dates back to the fourteenth century, and plantings in the region increased until around 1860, when phylloxera wiped many vineyards. Many were replanted with other varietals, especially Barbera. Nebbiolo is the first grape in the region to bud and the last to ripen, being harvested in mid to late October, long after the more prevalent Dolcetto and Barbera. It needs to be planted on south and southwestern facing slopes at an altitude of 820 to 1500 feet. It is susceptible to coulure (failure to form fruit after flowering), is genetically unstable with frequent mutations, and is very sensitive to soil type. It is so difficult to grow that only about 3% of Piedmont’s (and therefore, the world’s) production consists of Nebbiolo wines.

So why bother with such a temperamental grape? Because the WINES…oh my God, the wines! The wines produced, especially those from the tiny DOCGs of Barolo and Barbaresco, begin as lightly colored, very tannic, highly acidic wines with characteristic aromatics of roses and tar. After proper aging (and some of these wines require ten years and many improve over forty years), they transform into majestic, complex wines, intensely aromatic with notes of tar, roses, violets cherries, tobacco, herbs, and raspberries on the nose and palate. The characteristic almost brick–orange color and medium body belies the complexity and power that sits in the glass before you. These wines are among the most extraordinary in the world.

Nebbiolo wines are made with traditional or more modern methods, resulting in very different wines. The traditional methods include long maceration (20 to 30 days) and maturation in older large barrels. Modern methods include shorter maceration at cooler temperatures and aging in small new oak barrels, resulting in wines that are more approachable earlier. Many producers are now combining the techniques with good success.

Nebbiolo wines are produced mainly in the Lange appellation of Piedmont, and the most famous come from the vineyards surrounding the small towns of Babaresco and Barolo. Barbarescos are a bit lighter and more elegant of the two, and DOCG rules require that they are aged in oak at least nine months and a total of at least twenty-one for ormale wines and forty-five for Riservas. Barolos are more powerful and require one year of oak aging and at least thirty-six months total aging for the normale and a whopping fifty-seven months for the Riservas. With the tiny amount of plantings and the fact that a producer’s wines may not be sold until up to almost five years after vinifying them, it’s small wonder that they are so pricey on the shelf. Consequently, it’s hard to find a decent Barolo or Barbaresco for under $35.00, and you are more likely to pay over $50.00 or $60.00. Some of the great producers command hundreds of dollars for their wines, and they still sell out quickly.

We have lots of great Barolos in the store. Brovia is a great one, with the entry level 2010 selling for $51.99. However the otherworldy Brovia Rocche 2008, rated 96 points by Critic Robert Parker, will cost you $94.99. The Ceretto 2010 DOCG Barolo 2010 and Barbaresco 2011 are wonderful to taste side by side at 59.99 each. The Vietti Barolo 2010 Castiglione is wonderful at $52.99. Finally, if you want to taste what a Barolo or Barbaresco tastes like without breaking the bank, Natale Verga makes very good, if not world class, examples for $27.99 and $24.99.

Nebbiolo wines are being made from younger vines and vinified by more modern techniques. They are very approachable young and are delicious (and much more affordable), often being a bit bigger in fruit than the more traditional wines and they are delicious! Eugenio Bocchino’s Roccabella Nebbiolo 2012 is fantastic at $20.99. Vietti Perbacco 2011 at $25.99 is worth every penny. Rivetto makes a nice lighter version for $18.99.

If you want to venture outside of Langhe to the far northern reaches of Piedmont, the areas of Gheme and Gattinara make wonderful Nebbiolo wines that are a bit lighter and earthier. Travaglini Gattinara is awesome at $33.99.

While Nebbiolo wines are not cheap, they are incredibly good. Anyone truly interested in experiencing the best the wine world has to offer needs to try them. Cheers!