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Robert Whitley's Christmas Table & Paul Lukacs' Cognacs for the Holidays
By Michael Franz
Dec 27, 2023
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Every year has its challenges as well as its charms, but for me and my colleagues at Wine Review Online, the recent stretch of years has beeb supremely challenging.  We lost two dear friends worthy of the highest admiration, Robert Whitley, our Publisher and a journalist of remarkable accomplishment, and Paul Lukacs, a contributor since this site launched in 2005 and a James Beard Award-winning book author.  After a period of healing, the time seems right to republish two end-of-year columns from our archives to recall Robert and Paul to your attention, and to direct your gaze toward the wise columns available for reading by simply clicking on their photos on the WRO "Home" page.  We will never be the same without these two, but then again, we'll always be better for having known them....
~Michael Franz, ed.

The Christmas Table

Robert Whitley, Dec. 20, 2017:

The gathering around the Christmas table is a moment I cherish each year.  It is an opportunity for me to rummage through the cellar for special bottles of wine I've been saving for the right occasion.  Unlike many other collectors, I don't keep a running inventory of what's in the cellar.  I often come across gems from long ago that I'd forgotten I had.

Sometimes it's a vintage port from the '60s, or maybe it's a Bordeaux from the '70s, though that wasn't an especially great decade for Bordeaux. California Cabernet Sauvignon from the '80s is showing very well these days, and Italian wines from the '90s, when the renaissance of Italian wine was in full swing, are at peak maturity.

After 40 years of collecting great and some not-so-great vintages, they're all there gathering dust, just waiting for the right moment.  But that's my collection.  Not everyone has the luxury of simply descending a few stairs to lay their hands on a mature red wine from an exceptional vintage long ago.

If that's your situation, I have a solution.  If you can't go old in your wine selection for the Christmas table, think big.  Go for greatness.  Reach for that stunning bottle of wine that will fit the occasion even though it's young.

I'm often asked what my favorite wine is.  There's no right answer to that question — too many amazing wines to pick just one.  So what I say is this: If you were to put me on a raft and push me out to sea and say I could only have one wine to take with me, it would be something — anything — that had the name Gaja on the label.  I say that because I know there is not a more meticulous winemaker in the world than Angelo Gaja, the genius of Italy's Barolo and Barbaresco regions.  I know that if I tell you to pick up any bottle of Gaja, you will be impressed.

If there's one thing I've learned over 40 years as a wine collector and more than 25 years as a wine journalist, there are certain producers I can always count on.  They make brilliant wines because they stick to their principles and refuse to accept anything less than perfection.

France has its own producers of that ilk.  For example, you can trust the name Chapoutier. Michel Chapoutier makes impeccable wines in the northern Rhône Valley and the Languedoc. Jean-Luc Colombo, the famous winemaker of the Cornas region, is another whose wines never fail to impress.

The Champagne producer Bruno Paillard is another.  Italy's two finest sparkling wine producers, Ca' del Bosco and Ferrari, would give just about any Champagne you could name a run for the money.  And California is no slouch when it comes to bubbly.  You would be hard-pressed to be disappointed in a bottle from Gloria Ferrer, Domaine Carneros or Roederer Estate.

California is also home to my go-to producers for Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Merlot.  If a Cabernet would suit your needs for the Christmas table, you can't miss with a bottle from Spottswoode, Nickel & Nickel, Far Niente or Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.  The wines from these producers are brilliant, and they are brilliant every vintage.  What's more, they are the wines collectors covet, so rest assured they will impress your dinner guests.  My Merlot go-to is Duckhorn for the very same reason.

Pinot Noir, which used to be a tough sell, is a hot commodity today.  There is no shortage of exceptional Pinot Noir, but my old standbys for pure decadence and reliability are Merry Edwards and Dutton Goldfield.  I will say the same for the Merry Edwards and Dutton Goldfield Chardonnays.

Add to that exceptionally high bar Merry Edwards' Sauvignon Blanc and Dutton Goldfield's Gewurztraminer — each the finest wine of its type made in America — and you get the idea that anything you purchase from either producer is going to be top-shelf.  I might say the same of Spottswoode, whose Sauvignon Blanc rivals that of Merry Edwards.  In the world of Sauvignon Blanc, those two are at the absolute top of the heap.

Of course there are other worthy producers and brands too numerous to mention.  These are just a few of my personal favorites.  My point is that you don't have to have an overflowing wine cellar to make your wine selection for Christmas dinner fit the occasion.  Visit your favorite wine merchant, and make a beeline for the top names.  Go for greatness.  You will pay a little more, but it's Christmas.  Have yourself a merry merry!

*          *          *

Cognacs for the Holidays

Paul Lukacs, Dec. 24, 2019:

Long regarded as the world’s finest brandy, Cognac can be an ideal holiday delicacy.   Though often thought of as a restaurant or club beverage, it seems right at home, when at home, this time of year.  Whether a gift for someone special, a treat for guests, or even a present for one’s self, fine Cognac offers something special in a special season.

Cognac does have something of a split personality.  On the one hand, it’s a spirit--heady and strong, a drink akin to whiskey or rum.  On the other, it’s made from wine, and like any wine bespeaks its geographic origin or “terroir.”  The brandies that do that most evocatively are the most special.

This double character is reflected in how Cognac is both marketed and consumed.  Traditionalists usually drink it neat, often after dinner, and often in a snifter or tulip-shaped glass.  By contrast, more contemporary consumers tend to treat it as a cocktail.  They drink it over ice, with soda, tonic, and all sorts of other mixers.  For them, it’s more of a bar or nightclub beverage than a living or dining room one.

Not surprisingly, the big Cognac producers advertise their products primarily to this contemporary, usually urban audience.  They try to grow the market by looking beyond the traditional one.  

While neither approach to Cognac is inherently right or wrong, it’s important to understand that each looks for something different from what’s in the glass.  Thus different Cognacs, or categories of Cognac, are best suited to the different approaches.

Because the addition of soft drinks or juices, let alone liqueurs or other spirits, inevitably will mask a Cognac’s subtleties and nuances, it makes no sense to use truly special brandies as bases for mixed drinks or cocktails.  For the millions of consumers who enjoy Cognac this way, entry-level Cognacs are the way to go.     

When newly distilled, Cognac is fiery stuff.  Aging in cask tempers it, and long aging actually enhances it, yielding after many years the wonderfully expressive elixir so celebrated by connoisseurs.  That’s why French law requires all Cognacs to be registered by age, with the youngest that can be sold being at least two-and-a-half years old.

Cognac of this age, usually identified as “VS,” is great for cocktails and mixed drinks.  The large firm of Hennessy makes a very popular “VS.”  Warm and grapey, it costs roughly $35, and accounts for nearly one bottle in three of all the Cognac sold in the world.

“VSOP” or “Reserve” is the next category.  The youngest Cognac in these blends must be at least four-and-a-half years old, though many producers do use some older spirits, the final brandy averaging closer to eight or ten years of age.  

Although most “VSOP” Cognacs are probably best suited for mixing, some firms that specialize in this category make brandies worh sipping by themselves.  Remy Martin is probably the best known.  It’s “VSOP” ($50) tastes spicy, slightly sweet, and is impressively long.  Others to look for include the more floral Courvoisier “VSOP” ($40) and Hine’s elegant “Rare” ($60).

The next category, however, is the one containing most of the finest Cognacs.  To be labeled “XO” or the like, the youngest brandy in the blends must be at least six-and-a-half years old.  Almost all firms, though, use significantly older stock.  As important, these brandies almost always are made from wines from the best regions, since these are the ones proven to improve with age.

Cognac is a large area, stretching from the Atlantic coast some eighty miles or so into central France.  Centuries of experience have demonstrated that three small sub-regions, all in its center, yield the best grapes for brandy.  Two are somewhat confusingly called “Champagne”--one “Grande” because covering more acres, the other “Petite.”  (The name has nothing to do with the Champagne that is home to the world’s finest sparkling wines.)  The smallest sub-region is Borderies, just to the west of the town of Cognac itself.  Virtually all the best Cognacs come from one or more of these three areas.
Cognacs from Borderies display a distinctive nutty flavor, while those from the two Champagnes tend to be more floral and fruity.  As important, brandies from all three have the capacity to age both vigorously and gracefully.  Although they begin hot and raw, they become seductively smooth and sumptuous over time.

This transformation occurs only in cask.  Once the Cognac is bottled, it can no longer change.  The very finest Cognacs sometimes stay in casks, all made with tight-grained oak, for over fifty years.  Since a proportion of the spirit evaporates through the wood every year (called the “angels’ share”), these are both rare and costly.  They form a significant portion of the blend in the most expensive, prestige Cognacs, the sort that come in deluxe crystal bottles and cost a small fortune.  The best known of these is Remy Martin’s “Louis XIII.”  It comes in a round Baccarat bottle, and costs over $2500!  

Happily, one need not spend anywhere near that much to savor truly superb, old Cognac.  The quality difference between most prestige bottlings and “XO” types is far smaller than between “XO” and “VSOP.”  Unless you’re flush with extra cash, there’s really no need to go beyond  “XO.”

Below are recommendations of eight Cognacs at the “XO” level to consider buying.  They’re listed by price, but any one of them would make a special gift--and be a very special holiday treat.   Prices all are approximate, and you should note that many stores offer deep discounts this time of year.

Prunier “Twenty Years Old” ($90)
From a small, family firm, this Cognac seems perfectly balanced.  It exhibits rich, powerful flavors and at the same time feels seductively silky and smooth--the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove.

Jean Fillioux “Tres Vieux” ($125)
A small, family-run firm in the very heart of Grande Champagne, Jean Fillioux produces a series of excellent Cognacs that are marked by delicacy more than power.  “Tres Vieux” is over twenty years old, and displays a sweet spice character.

Martell “Cordon Bleu” ($125)
Marked by brandy from Borderies, this always popular label tastes deep and nutty, with flavors that to an American palate resemble pecan or walnut pie.

Otard XO ($135)
Round and rich, with chocolate-tinged undertones, this is an expressive, well-balanced “XO.”

Pierre Ferand “Selection des Anges” ($150)
From Grande Champagne and roughly thirty years old, with a crisp, apple-like character and vanilla undertones.

Remy Martin XO ($160)
Rich, almost lush on the palate, with hints of caramel and vanilla in addition to rich fruit, all introduced by a floral bouquet, Remy’s XO exemplifies this firm’s style, one that expresses the character of grapes from the Champagnes.

Hine “Antique” ($190)
Nutty, deep, and very elegant (because not at all hot or heavy), “Antique” tastes rich but at the same time seems delicate--a paradoxical but delicious combination.  

Delamin Vesper ($200)
From Grande Champagne and quite rich, with a floral bouquet and a wonderfully complex finish.  All Delamin Cognacs are very good.          

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