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December 28, 2019

The Sparkling Wine Hierarchy

Admit it, you're one of those wine lovers who only thinks about bubbly between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve.  And if you're not, you certainly crave the fizz more around the holidays.  At least that's what the numbers indicate. The bulk of U.S. sparkling wine sales come in the final two months of the year — every year.

So, a refresher course in the world of sparkling wine may be in order.

First, you might have noticed that I've used the terms bubbly, fizz and sparkling wine, not Champagne.  It is all too easy — and lazy, the Champenoise would say — to lump all sparkling wine under the Champagne umbrella.  Wrongheaded, too.

Champagne is the pinnacle of sparkling wine, thus the very real urge to piggyback its history and prestige.  In fact, Champagne is a legally defined region about an hour northeast of Paris, and its vignerons don't take kindly to the adoption of Champagne as a generic term to describe Cava or Prosecco or any of the myriad other sparkling wines from throughout the world.

I will be the first to concede that Champagne deserves its lofty perch atop the world of sparkling wine.  A number of factors contribute to this.  First, the chalky soils of the region impart a structure and vital minerality found in Champagne that is difficult to replicate anywhere else on the planet.  A carefully cultivated hierarchy of vineyards (grand cru, premier cru, etc.) is another factor.

In the cellar, "reserve" wines from exceptional vintages are culled out and saved for multi-vintage blends that ensure a top Champagne house can maintain quality even through less-than-stellar vintages.  And the top wines of Champagne are aged extensively on the lees, building complexity with each passing year.  The lengthy aging contributes mightily to the high cost of special cuvée Champagnes.

Is the added expense of serving Champagne as opposed to another sparkling wine worth it?  That's up to the individual.  The important thing to remember is this: If someone offers you a glass of Dom Perignon or Roederer Cristal, don't turn it down.  It will surely be a unique and memorable experience. I can't even imagine another adult beverage more appropriate for a celebratory toast.

The list of Champagnes worthy of the higher prices is long, so I will contain myself with a handful of personal favorites: Bruno Paillard, Laurent-Perrier, Möet & Chandon, Dom Perignon, Roederer, Taittinger, A.R. Lenoble, Charles Heidsieck, Piper-Heidsieck, Henriot and Delamotte.  I could go on, but these Champagnes should set you up nicely for any and all special occasions.

Beyond Champagne, there are notable sparkling wines that have made tremendous strides over the past few decades and enjoy favorable comparisons with Champagne, specifically north central Italy, and the Napa and Sonoma regions of California.  The top wines from these areas are still quite expensive, but prices pale next to the finest Champagnes.

Italy's Franciacorta and Trento regions produce remarkable sparkling wine using the tried and true methods of Champagne, i.e. a second fermentation in the bottle and extensive aging on the lees.  Ca' del Bosco, Bellavista and Ferrari all produce world-class bubbly that could fool a Champagne aficionado in a blind tasting.

Ditto the likes of Domaine Carneros by Taittinger, Roederer Estate, Domaine Chandon, Schramsberg Vineyards, Mumm Napa Valley, J Vineyards and Iron Horse from California.  The primary differences to my palate are a more intense aroma of toasty brioche and a stronger thread of minerality that I find in Champagne.  That said, the finest sparkling wines from California and northern Italy are stunning in their own right.

Another rung down the price ladder you will find Cava, Prosecco and the various Cremant expressions of France, such as Crémant d'Alsace, Crémant de Loire and Crémant de Bourgogne.  These wines, with some exceptions, are not as complex or profound as Champagne and the top northern Italian and California sparklers, but they are delicious and easy on the budget, and so, not to be easily dismissed.

Many of these wines are made using the Charmat Method, where the wine undergoes fermentation in large stainless steel tanks, rather than individual bottles.  This more economical production method results in lower prices, which may better fit your party budget.

The one complaint I hear frequently about Prosecco is that it is sweet, and there is some truth to that.  A huge percentage of Prosecco production is in the extra-dry category, which can be noticeably sweeter than a brut sparkler. These wines can be very tasty, but if you prefer a drier style, it is best to seek out Prosecco specifically labeled as brut.

Of course, sparkling wines are also made in such far-flung places as Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and South Africa, and quality in general is very high, making these quite enjoyable options for experimentation….

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:43 AM

December 26, 2019

Michael Franz's Wine Producer of the year: Boekenhoutskloof

What could be better than this?  A stunningly beautiful winery that makes relatively small quantities (8,333 cases) of fabulous, immaculately crafted Semillon and Syrah as well as Cabernet Sauvignon from two separate appellations, but also amazingly high quality, everyday renditions of Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah (under the “Porcupine Ridge” brand), plus phenomenally interesting blends (white, red and rosé under “The Wolftrap” brand)?  I’m already out of breath, and I haven’t yet gotten to “The Chocolate Block,” a mid-priced blend that has always been delicious but seems to get better every year.

Certainly among the handful of South Africa’s flagship producers, Boekenhoutskloof is on an incredible tear at the moment, and this might be the best place to start for those who aren’t yet fans of South African wines.  This is in part because you can get the idea of starting at any level in the range of wines and get the idea. 

Collectors who lean toward France or Napa can start with the Boekenhoutskloof offerings and taste wines equal to – or better than – what they’ve been paying many times more to obtain.  Tasting at the estate in Franschhoek in September, I scored the both the Syrah and Semillon from 2017 at 96 points, and a 2007 Semillon from 2007 seemed capable of improving for another few years.  The two Cabernets from the same vintage were in the same league, with the Stellenbosch bottling checking in at 95 and the Franschhoek at 96 but making a case for at least one more point as it unwound in the glass.

That’s very impressive, obviously, but all things considered, the inexpensive wines for everyday drinking should really turn the heads of novice wine lovers, party-throwers, and post-holiday cheapskates.  The Porcupine Ridge Syrah from 2018 ($11) was so good that we poured it at my daughter’s wedding in October (and that was after it won one of 55 slots in what may be the USA’s most competitive restaurant wine selection program for the DC-based Clyde’s Restaurant Group…tasted amongst 3,000+ other wines).  It won its slot in a blind tasting with food conducted by 40 employees of the Group, and though I did all of the preliminary round tastings to determine the finalists, I wasn’t among the tasters in that round. 

If the Syrah hadn’t been so phenomenal, we might very well have taken the Porcupine Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2018 too, and the 2017 Merlot was also very near the top of its category.  Brand duplication wasn’t an issue for The Wolftrap line, and hence the 2017 white blend of Viognier, Chenin Blanc and Grenache Blanc also won a slot.  At $12 or so, this is an amazing wine that is full-bodied but quite complex and very nimble with all sorts of foods, and one to search out regardless of whether you've got value or sheer quality in mind.

When a company makes 7 million bottles of wine per year and everything is stellar in its price category, all one can say is:  Damn, that’s bloody impressive.  But that’s not all!  A new venture in the cool climate area of Hermanus is already making wicked good Chardonnay and Pinot from purchased fruit, and when the estate-grown vines become mature, one can only imagine how good the wines under the “Cap Maritime” wines will be. 

When somebody like me tastes 9,000+ wines in a year, it shouldn’t be easy to pick a best producer.  But in 2019, the choice was obvious for me, and these wines could get your 2020 off to a very good start.
Posted by Michael Franz at 9:57 AM

December 23, 2019

2019 Favorite for Marguerite Thomas: Domaine Cheveau Macon Fuissé “Les Grandes Bruyères” 2016

One of my favorite wines in 2019 was Domaine Cheveau Macon Fuissé (Burgundy, France) 2016 “Les Grandes Bruyères” (Rosenthal, $22).  This succulent Burgundian white wine exudes both liveliness and quiet charm, and it certainly offers excellent value for the price.  The limestone and clay soils in which the vines grow partly explain Les Grande Bruyère’s distinctive character, but of course dirt alone does not a great wine make -- the age of the vines is also a factor here.  The Grandes Bruyères vines are almost half a century old, which can impact flavor, as older vines tend to produce fewer grape bunches with more concentrated flavors. 

At this estate, which is now being run by the third generation of the Cheveau family, all harvesting is done by hand, and Domaine Cheveau wines are fermented and vinified parcel-by-parcel. After fermentation, the wine is raised in stainless steel but left in contact with the fine lees for a year.

Domaine Cheveau’s white wines are made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes, as is true for almost all Burgundian white wines.  The small Macon-Fuissé appellation is located on a slope beneath the more famous Pouilly-Fuissé district, whose wines tend to be a tad richer.  But compared to Burgundy’s iconic Chablis, Macon-Fuissé’s Chardonnay is generally somewhat fruitier and less acidic.  “Les Grandes Bruyères” is a subtle rather than an explosive wine, delighting the senses with a framework of fresh flowers and luscious ripe fruit supported by a steely finish bristling with minerality.
Posted by Marguerite Thomas at 4:00 PM

December 20, 2019

Go-To Wines for Gifting

During the gifting season, I am inclined to wander the wine aisles at the Costco near me hoping for a wine or two that speaks to me. The wines that speak loudest are typically my go-to wines. They've become my go-to wines because they are reliable, regardless of vintage.   

For example, if I spy anything from Guigal, Chapoutier or Jean-Luc Colombo — three great producers from France's Rhone Valley — into the shopping cart it goes.  The same goes for Cakebread, Spottswoode or Duckhorn — three great producers from California's Napa Valley. Or Merry Edwards, Dutton-Goldfield and Jordan — three of my faves from California's Sonoma County.

The beauty of having a number of go-to wines is you really don't have to think too much. They are no-brainers.  In the spirit of the season, I offer these humble gifting suggestions for go-to, no-brainer wines from a few of the most popular categories.

Champagne: Moet & Chandon is widely available and rock solid. Bruno Paillard, Charles Heidsieck, Laurent-Perrier (particularly the rosé) and A.R. Lenoble would also be on my short list.

Domestic Sparkling: You can't go wrong with anything from Domaine Carneros by Taittinger. Ditto Roederer Estate, Mumm Napa Valley, Chandon and J Vineyards.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Cakebread (especially the Dancing Bear Ranch), Spottswoode, Far Niente, Jordan, Nickel & Nickel (especially the Stelling Vineyard) and Corison all make excellent stocking stuffers.

Merlot: Duckhorn, Chateau St. Jean, Northstar and Nickel & Nickel should be on everyone's shopping list.

Pinot Noir: You won't go wrong with any Pinot Noir from Merry Edwards, Dutton-Goldfield, Talbott, Goldeneye, Foxen or Roar.

Chardonnay: Merry Edwards, Shafer, Dutton-Goldfield, Tongue Dancer and Sonoma-Cutrer will please even the most discriminating palates.

Sauvignon Blanc: Duckhorn, Spottswoode and Merry Edwards are the Big Three, but Silverado, Cakebread and Cloudy Bay won't disappoint, either.

While the producers mentioned here are tried and true from my own personal experience, they certainly don't represent all the worthy wines that might fit the go-to definition. My final suggestion is that everyone explore the incredible bounty that the modern wine world has provided and begin the process of creating your own personal list of go-to wines!  

Posted by Robert Whitley at 3:32 PM

December 18, 2019

Michael Franz's Best Wine Gadget of 2019: The Aermate

This is an odd blog posting for me, as I believe that almost all wine gadgets are almost entirely ridiculous.  You may not share my view, and I don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade during the holiday season, but to my mind, a $10 corkscrew works every bit as well as one costing $300, and things like wine-themed neckties and vine stump coffee tables aren’t even worthy of derision.  My advice to newly enthralled wine lovers is to buy a few decent glasses and spend the rest of your discretionary funds on…wait for it…wine!

With that noted, however, I’ve got one gadget that I use every day when I’m not on the road, which is by far the most effective wine aerator I’ve ever tried, which is the full bottle version of The Aermate.  It certainly merits mention in this gift-giving season.  The thing is basically a stainless steel wand with a bulb at the top (essentially the same as what you’d find on a turkey baster) and an inch-long cylinder at the bottom with a gazillion little pores.  After uncorking a bottle and pouring a healthy glass out of it, one then inserts the want and pumps air into it from the bottom, which sends countless little bubbles into the wine, which foams very noticeably.  (This is why you need to pour out a glass first…otherwise, you’ll overflow liquid from the bottle all over your counter.)  The fancy winemaking name for this process and effect is, “micro-oxygenation,” and it really does work to get young red wines to open and become much more expressive very quickly.

The effectiveness of this $30 product (current best price is on aermate.com) is almost completely limited to young red wines, or older reds that wouldn’t likely throw a lot of sediment (which you wouldn’t want to agitate by using the Aermate…go with a decanter instead).  In case you are suspicious about my enthusiasm, let me note that the manufacturer’s claim that the device is also effective for spirits (which are listed at length on the box in which the Aermate is sold) is silly, and that its usefulness for white wines is quite minimal. 

However, for young reds, this thing is terrific.  After the foam in the bottle subsides and settles, I use a cheapo stainless funnel (available at many hardware or home furnishing stores) to pour the glass back into the bottle, and voila…no decanter to wash, no confusion about which wine is in which decanter…just a very effectively aerated young red wine (or five or twelve, as is often the case when I’m reviewing) in the bottle in which it was sold.  The only cleanup requires is a quick rinse of the perforated cylinder under running water (while pumping) to assure that the pores don’t get clogged with dried wine.  There’s also a “portable” version, but hauling one of these around is too geeky even for me, and that item is too short to be fully effective unless you’re aerating glass by glass, which seems silly.  Buy two for yourself, and one for each of your wine loving friends.
Posted by Michael Franz at 11:32 AM

December 10, 2019

Wayne Belding’s Wine of the Year for 2019: Elvio Cogno Barolo Bricco Pernice 2013

My Wine of the Year for 2019 comes from one of my favorite regions – the Piemonte of Northwest Italy.  Years ago, one of my first experiences with truly great Barolo was a wine made by Elvio Cogno.  Cogno was the winemaker at the Marcarini estate in La Morra when he crafted the magnificent 1967 Barolo Brunate Riserva.  At sixteen years of age, the wine was absolutely enchanting – ethereal, exotic, complex and compelling. 

That tasting experience transformed my sense of what Barolo could be.  I enjoyed the fruits of Cogno’s craft for many years after that initial revelation.  My interest in Cogno wines followed Elvio when, after a long and illustrious career at Marcarini, he started his own winery in 1990.

The Elvio Cogno estate is located in the village of Novello, nestled between Monforte d’Alba and Barolo itself.  The Ravera vineyard is the top vineyard in Novello and the Bricco Pernice, now recognized under its own name, is the best site in the Ravera vineyard for Nebbiolo vines.  Elvio Cogno’s daughter Nadia and her husband Valter Fissore now run the Cogno estate and create classic, elegant Barolos. 

Cogno’s 2013 Bricco Pernice is a benchmark for the entire Barolo appellation.  The long ripening period of the 2013 harvest adds depth and nuance to an already exquisite wine.  The bouquet is forward and complex, with sweet cherry and raspberry fruits enhanced by the classic “forest floor” style of Barolo – elements of sandalwood, dried leaves, flowers, cocoa, herbs, anise, and baking spices are all present and in harmony.  The flavors are multilayered and rich with the ripe red fruits interwoven with leafy, herbal elements as well as the sandalwood, vanilla and spice components. 

Although approachable and thoroughly enjoyable now for its generous fruit, the 2013 Cogno Ravera Bricco Pernice Barolo will develop and improve for another 20+ years in the cellar.  Imported by Wilson-Daniels with a suggested retail price of $104.  96 Points

Posted by Wayne Belding at 10:07 AM