December 30, 2018
Chances are good that sometime over the next month or so someone will put a glass of bubbly in your hand and offer up a “Champagne” toast.
What’s in the glass might be Champagne, or maybe not. No matter, it’s all good. ‘Tis the season, after all. What’s important is the festive spirit inspired by sparkling wines served during the holiday season. It’s a popular tradition to be sure. It is estimated that more than half of all sparkling wine sold in the United States is consumed between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
Before you dive in, however, know that sparkling wine is produced in an array of styles.
The easiest and friendliest bubbly is prosecco, produced in northeastern Italy. Most prosecco is made in bulk and is light and fruity as well as friendly to those on a tighter budget. At one time most prosecco was slightly sweet, but in recent years the drier brut style has grown in popularity. Good prosecco ranges in price from $15 to $25. Chloe, Martini & Rossi and La Marca are reliable producers. Prosecco makes a superb aperitif and is good with salty snacks.
Cremant is the name for sparkling wines made in specific regions of France other than Champagne. It tends to be fruity, like prosecco, and easy to drink as well as friendly to the wallet. Excellent cremant is generally made in the brut style. Alsace, Burgundy, Limoux (in the south of France, where the first sparkling wines were made) and the Loire Valley all produce top-notch cremant that ranges in price from $17 to $28. JCB by Jean-Charles Boisset, Pierre Sparr, Lucien Albrecht and Gustave Lorentz are cremant producers you can trust.
Spanish cava would be next in the sparkling wine hierarchy. Though not as widely distributed, nor as popular, in the U.S., cava delivers a drier style and generally more structure than prosecco or cremant. It’s also a bit more expensive, with excellent brands such as Pere Ventura and Anna de Codorniu fetching upwards of $40 a bottle. Princess, in the $20 range, is an excellent alternative at a more attractive price. Cava, like prosecco, is an excellent aperitif but also a good match with steamed shellfish, raw oysters or traditional Spanish tapas.
New World bubbly is yet another notch higher in the pecking order of sparkling wine. Excellent bubblies are made in Argentina, Australia and the United States. With apologies to the very good fizz produced in New York and Washington, the best of these are made in California. These wines are made in the traditional method of Champagne, with the second fermentation (the one that creates the bubbles) in the bottle. They also receive significant aging, though generally not as much as top-notch Champagne.
Schramsberg, located in the Napa Valley, started it all a half-century ago and is still going strong. Roederer Estate in the Anderson Valley is another exceptional producer. Reliable names you can trust include Domaine Carneros by Taittinger, Domaine Chandon, Mumm Napa Valley, Gloria Ferrer, J Vineyards and Iron Horse. All are first-rate and can stand up to the finest Champagne in a blind tasting. Their best bubblies retail for as much as $100 a bottle, but their non-vintage cuvee wines are excellent value in the $25 to $45 range.
California and Washington also produce very good inexpensive bubbly. Those include Korbel and Barefoot Bubbly (California) and Chateau Ste. Michelle (Washington). Prices for these wines range from $9 to $20.
On a par with California’s finest, and perhaps closer to Champagne in style, is the sparkling wine of northern Italy from the Franciacorta and Trento regions. Ca’ del Bosco, Bellavista and Antinori (Franciacorta) and Ferrari (Trento) all produce wines that rival in quality the top bubblies from California and present a serious challenge to Champagne’s position at the top of the quality/prestige pyramid. Their finest wines retail for about $100 and vintage bubblies typically fetch $60 and up.
Champagne, of course, is numero uno. Champagne sets the bar very high. Why else would the default term for all sparkling wine be “Champagne?” The Champenoise chafe at the use of the word Champagne to identify any bubbly other than Champagne that is produced within the official boundaries of Champagne, but it’s a compliment in many ways and an acknowledgement that Champagne is the standard by which all bubblies are judged.
The finest Champagne has a rare combination of firm structure and creamy texture, with complexity and power that is unparalleled. This is due in part to the chalky soils of Champagne, but also to the extensive use of “reserve” wines from exceptional vintages that are used to maintain high quality in off years. You can never go wrong with a bottle of Dom Perignon, Moet & Chandon, Roederer, Taittinger, Charles Heidsieck, Krug, Perrier-Jouet, Billecart-Salmon or Pol Roger, just to name a few. Prices from these producers will range from $50 to more than $300 a bottle.
Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.
December 14, 2018
If you're one of the millions in the planning stages of an over-the-top holiday feast, allow me to throw another log on an already roaring fire. What comes after dinner?
At my holiday table, there is almost always a dessert that's too good to pass up, and often an assortment of cheeses, too. Many hosts will take the path of least resistance and muddle through the dessert and/or cheese course sipping the leftover dinner wines.
There is a better way. Over the years, I've discovered a number of sure-fire after-dinner pairings that have served me well at holiday feasts past. These are but a few.
With rich chocolate desserts I favor late-bottled vintage (LBV) ports. LBV port is reasonably priced. All the top port houses, such as Sandeman, Dow's, Graham's, et al., make them. I wouldn't waste a vintage port on dessert.
Heavily spiced pies and cakes call for tawny port, preferably 10 years old. Older tawnies are best sipped on their own while curled up in front of a fire. Off-dry aromatic whites, such as pinot gris, riesling, muscat or gewurztraminer, also show well with this pairing. One of my current favorites of this genre is Navarro's 2017 Late Harvest muscat blanc.
Salty blue-veined cheeses sing when paired with Sauternes or Barsac. Chateau Rieussec Sauternes, and the Barsac from Chateau Climens and Chateau Coutet are three of my go-to wines from this unique area of Bordeaux. A little bit goes a long way, so buy the half bottle unless you have a big crowd to please. The finest domestic wine in this style is the Napa Valley's Dolce.
Aromatic, savory cheeses make me long for vintage port — the older the better. I currently have the 1963, 1977 and 2000 vintages in my cellar. Oh, what a feast that will be!
December 6, 2018
A gift of wine this holiday season is special on its face because it’s personal. It’s also a minefield for those choosing the gift. Those with little wine experience will have doubts about the quality or the price. Even those who know what they like in a wine might be reluctant to assume others will share their enthusiasm.
I will attempt to alleviate a bit of the anxiety by suggesting ten well-priced (under $100 retail) luxury wines that are universally respected by wine connoisseurs. The following wines are among my personal favorites; wines I would be happy to gift and honored to receive:
Black Kite 2016 Pinot Noir, Kite’s Rest, Anderson Valley ($50) – The brilliant winemaker Jeff Gaffner convinced the owners to divide their Anderson Valley estate vineyard into three distinct parcels: Redwoods’ Edge, Stony Terrace and River Turn. Kite’s Rest, a blend of those three specific terroirs, combines the elegance and aromatics of Redwood’s Edge with the richness and depth of Stony Terrace and River Turn. You can’t miss with this wine.
Cakebread Cellars 2015 Chardonnay Reserve, Carneros ($55) – Richer and more layered than Cakebread’s “regular” chardonnay, the reserve hit a home run at the 2018 Ciritcs Challenge in San Diego, where it was named best-of-show white wine. This is a stunning wine that demonstrates California chardonnay can possess power and elegance at the same time.
Castello Banfi 2013 Poggio Alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Italy ($95) – From a special section of the Banfi Estate, Poggio Alle Mura has a long track record of excellence. The 2013 may be the finest vintage yet, and it’s available this year as Banfi celebrates its 40th anniversary in Montalcino.
Corison 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($95) – Winemaker/owner Cathy Corison is the queen of Napa Valley cabernet. She enjoyed a rock-star career as winemaker at Chappellet Vineyards before she struck out on her own and her star is still shining as bright as ever. Corison has resisted the trend in recent years to opt for power over elegance. Her cabs are among the most elegant and well balanced in the Napa Valley.
Domaine Carneros by Taittinger 2015 Brut Rose, Carneros ($42) – This is a serious sparkling rose from perhaps the finest sparkling wine producer in the United States. Winemaker Eileen Crane oversees production and the wines reflect her dedication to quality and style. They are impeccable in every way and this vintage brut rose is a gem.
Dutton-Goldfield 2015 Chardonnay, Rued Vineyard ($55) – Winemaker Dan Goldfield is perhaps best known for his scintillating single-vineyard pinot noirs. That said, his Rued Chardonnay is about as good as California chardonnay gets. You won’t be disappointed.
Gloria Ferrer 2007 Carneros Cuvee, Late Disgorged, Carneros ($80) – Gloria Ferrer’s prestige cuvee, Carneros Cuvee, gets the same tender loving care a top-notch Champagne house would lavish on its $400 a bottle tetes de cuvee. If you’ve never tasted an aged, mature bubbly you are in for a treat.
Jordan Vineyards 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($56) – The best cabernet sauvignon for the price in the world, bar none. And they do it every year!
Merry Edwards 2016 Pinot Noir, Olivet Lane, Russian River Valley ($68) – Merry, the queen of California pinot noir, retired this year so this vintage from one of her favorite vineyards is one of her last. Long live the queen!
Moet & Chandon 2009 Grand Vintage Brut, Champagne, France ($78) – Vintage Champagne from a top house at this price would be hard to pass up. So what are you waiting for?