December 2007


Barring the fact that you might be tossing buckets of bubbly at hordes of giddy revelers — try the Gruet Brut (non-vintage) from New Mexico, a fresh, fruity, biscuity style of sparkling wine (fashioned in the methode champenoise) with lots of crisp acid and limestone, about $14 to $17 — let me offer a couple of impressive products that deliver top quality without reaching for the stratospheric prices of the top-of-the-line cuvées.

A romantic dinner for two tonight would benefit greatly from the elegance and dignity of Schramsberg’s J. Schram Brut 2000, a schram.jpg blend of 80 percent chardonnay and 20 percent pinot noir. Schramsberg, the leading producer of sparkling wine in California, despite increasing (and increasingly better) competition, generally draws grapes from four North Coast counties, in this case Napa (60 percent), Mendocino (20 percent), Sonoma (12 percent) and Marin (8 percent). The result is a recognizable house style for this flagship sparkling wine of terrific substance and character. The color is pale burnished gold with a slight silver tarnish; the bouquet teems with wood smoke, dried spice, quince, roasted lemon and toasted almond skins. This is a very high-toned sparkling wine, structured with vibrant acid, elements of chalk and limestone and so much lip-smacking texture that it feels viscous, almost candied around the edges. The finish, not surprisingly, is dry, minerally, spicy and austere. The rating is Excellent, and the suggested price is about $90. Production is 1,542 cases.

To go in a different direction, and less expensive, that same romantic dinner for two, or a small dinner party, would slide smoothly on the winsome wheels of the Veuve Clicquot Reserve Rosé (non-vintage), a classic French rosé champagne that to its traditional basis of pinot noir grapes (50-55 percent), pinot meunier (15-20 percent) and chardonnay (28-33 percent) adds a balance of 12 percent red wine. The result here is a lovely pale peach-salmon color enlivened by a steady stream of tiny silver bubbles and an 87191d.jpg attractive bouquet that weaves hints of raspberry, pear and melon with limestone and hints of biscuits and toasted almond. In the mouth, this champagne offers resonant acid and limestone qualities with touches of dried red fruit, fresh bread and cookie dough. Charming and expressive with an Excellent rating. As happens with popular imported champagnes, the range of prices for the Veuve Clicquot Reserve Rosé is astonishing; coastal cities will see prices from about $52 to $62, while in heartland cities the price can go up to $70 and $75.

Or, wait — this is a brilliant idea — serve the Veuve Clicquot Reserve Rosé as aperitif and the J. Schram 2000 with dinner. Everybody will love you.

Since New Year’s Eve is the biggest champagne and sparkling wine night of the year, let me append some tips on proper serving.

1. Champagne and sparkling wine should be served chilled, straight from the refrigerator.

2. They should be consumed in tall “flute” glasses, not the shallow “coupe” glasses said to have been modeled on one of Marie Antoinette’s breasts. I wonder which one.

3. Never try to open a bottle of champagne or sparkling wine with a cork-screw. Strip off the foil capsule and untwist the wire cage that surrounds the cork. With a towel over the bottle, grasp the cork in one hand and the bottom of the bottle in the other. Extract the cork by twisting the bottle, not the cork.

4. Now matter how plastered you are or how much hilarity you anticipate, NEVER push the cork out with your thumbs, hoping for a loud POP, a gush of foam and a cork careening about the room. The pressure inside a bottle of champagne or sparkling wine is enormous, and the cork will rush out at great speed and force, enough to damage an eye.

Two myths about champagne and sparkling wine exploded:
1. Consuming large amounts of champagne does not make you smarter, funnier or sexier. Believe me, I’ve tried. It doesn’t work.
2. Despite all the hype, champagne is not great with caviar, unless it happens to be the very, very driest more exquisitely elegant champagne with the very very best caviar, and already the tab is about $300. In all other cases, super-chilled vodka, straight from the freezer, is truly the best accompaniment to caviar. The Russians knew what they were doing.

The Taltani Brut Taché, non-vintage, is a great deal for the price. A blend of 52 percent chardonnay, 41 percent pinot noir and 7 percent pinot meunier grapes (the traditional grapes of Champagne), the wine derives from the Pyrenees region of Australia’s 62.jpg Victoria (70 percent) and from Tasmania (30 percent). The color is what LL, who knows something about gems and watches and so forth, called “rose gold,” which is to say that it’s like pale salmon-copper with a shimmering pink-silver sheen. The bouquet is a delicate weaving of macerated raspberry and dried orange rind with hints of toasty, biscuity notes. In the mouth, this methode champenoise sparkling wine nicely balances its effervescence with a slightly creamy texture and scintillating acid, subdued citrus flavors and burgeoning elements of limestone and chalk. In a word: delicious. I rate this Very Good+ and a Good Value at about $22.

Look all the way Down Under to Tasmania for the Clover Hill Brut 2003, a blend of 55 percent chardonnay, 39 percent pinot noir 70.jpg and 6 percent pinot meunier. This is a very charming and nicely complex sparkling wine, also methode champenoise, that’s unusually fruity and savory. Scents and flavors of roasted lemon, lemon curd, quince and lime are bolstered by smoky, biscuity elements with backnotes of toffee and cinnamon toast. The limestone and flint really come up in the mouth, adding a slightly formidable touch to ringing acid and a texture that balances lace-like effervescence with the heft of its yeasty, oaky nature. I rate this Tasmanian sparkling wine Excellent. At $32, it’s Worth a Search. especially because, unfortunately, only 200 cases were imported to the United States.

The importer is Goelet Wine Estates, formerly Clos du Val Wine Co. Visit taltarni.com.au.

On The Seventh Day of Christmas? Whoa, that’s New Year’s Eve! You’ll have to check back tomorrow.

Wine Spectator’s “The Top 100″ wines, plus “Wine of the Year,” is usually a document as arcane as the golden tablets handed to Joseph Smith by the aptly named Angel Moroni. Merely the task of choosing 100 wines from the 15,000 or so reviewed by the magazine’s staff every year must be daunting. What interests me is the subtitle on the cover of the magazine’s Dec. wine_spectator_logo1.gif 31-Jan. 15 issue: “Our Editors Select the Most Exciting Wines of 2007.” Not the best wines, not the greatest wines, but the most exciting.

For once, I will not quibble with WS. I think the adjective “exciting” is appropriate. As an individual, with a full-time job as well as a website (KoeppelOnWine.com) and this blog and five dogs and two cats and a 22-year-old car that costs as much to maintain as putting a child through college, I don’t taste nearly, I mean not nearly, as many wines as the reviewers at WS, but I understand the impulse to focus, for ultimate praise, on the wines that are “the most exciting,” because it is my experience, and probably the experience of every other wine writer out there, whether in print or in the ether, that most wines do not live up to that ideal.

Oh, we see plenty of decent, quaffable, well-made, solid wines, and, actually, there’s nothing wrong with those wines. Pop the cork of a $9 Spanish garnacha or a $10 Argentine malbec, and decent, quaffable, well-made and solid is what we’re looking for. We tend to judge those products as “great little pasta, pizza and burger wines.” Such wines not only fill a need, but they can be charming and attractive. These, however, are not very exciting wines, though in the rare case that such a wine displays more vibrancy, depth and character than its counterparts it can feel pretty exciting. And while WS’s roster of “The Most Exciting Wines of 2007″ doesn’t revolve around great little burger wines, the list does include, down toward the bottom, a healthy handful of wines that cost from $11 to $20.

These 100 products are mainly and not surprisingly, among the best-known, most collectible and most expensive wines in the world, though the reviewers for the magazine are capable of surprises, too. The criteria were these: 1. Quality, as represented by the score (based on the magazine’s famous and notorious 100-point scale); 2. Value, as reflected by the wine’s release price; 3. Availability, measured by case production or cases imported; and 4. “an X-factor we call excitement.”

It’s interesting that value and availability comprise two of the criteria. For example, the magazine’s “Wine of the Year” is the Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2005 from Clos du Pape. The wine scored 98 points when it was first reviewed. Now during the course of the reviewing year, six wines scored 99 and three scored 100. Why did a wine that scored 98 beat these nine wines for “Wine of the Year”? Besides the “excitement” factor, the Clos du Pape costs about $80 and is available in 7,500 cases. Some of the wines that scored in the 99s and 100s exist only as 12 or 50 or 200 cases and cost three to 10 times as much as the Clos du Pape, so the magazine does not take a simple “all-the-wines-that-score-highest” approach to its “Top 100.”

Still, the WS staff parses with a damned fine and keenly edged razor, and when you compare the list of all the wines that in 2007 received 95 points or higher (294) with the “Top 100″ list, you have to wonder how much parleying went on in the magazine’s back rooms and how strict or nebulous the “X-Factor we call excitement” really is, especially since many of the “Top 100″ wines scored between 90 and 94. You can hear the reviewers during their discussions: “Gee, I guess this wine wasn’t as exciting as I thought it was six months ago.”

Anyway — and this is really my point — I wish that more producers and winemakers would think about delivering wines with that excitement factor, the qualities that speak to our noses and palates (and spirits) of authenticity and integrity, of region and place and vineyard, of devotion to the grapes and bringing from them every element of grace and character. Those are the wines, individual and expressive — and they don’t have to be expensive and they don’t have to show up on next year’s WS “Top 100″ — that I would like to drink in 2008.

Except for all the Premier Cru Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundies that people — thanking you in advance — are going to invite me to taste.

I’ve tasted other champagnes from the well-run house of Bruno Paillard, but for whatever reason had not tried their Rèserve Privée Blanc de Blancs, non-vintage, before. Boy, am I glad I did.

Made completely from chardonnay grapes, this utterly elegant and refined Blanc de Blancs offers a radiant pale gold color 27243.jpg enlivened by a persistent swirling surge of tiny bubbles. The bouquet wreathes limestone, roasted quince and pear, almond skin and lightly buttered toast. It’s a well-integrated champagne that finds perfect equilibrium among mature notes of wheatmeal and caramel, a light gloss of citrus flavors, resonant acid and a powerful limestone element that dominates the long, spicy finish. Clearly a rating of Excellent is merited here. The suggested retail price is $70

Imported by Martin Scott Wines, Lake Success, N.Y.

On the Sixth Day of Christmas? Sorry, you’ll have to check back tomorrow.

A great movement is afoot to extol the virtues of artisan-made champagnes from small, family-owned firms, and I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for the concept, not just because of the notions of authenticity and integrity involved but because the examples I have encountered recently express a great deal of character and individuality.

Packed with those qualities is the Chartogne-Taillet Brut Cuvée Sainte-Anne, a nonvintage blend of about 50 percent each 9659.jpg chardonnay and pinot noir. I tasted this champagne twice in the past two weeks and was taken with it each time. The color is medium gold with a blush of brass; tiny bubbles rush upward in a constant and consistent fountain. The bouquet offers apple, quince and lemon with hints of macerated stone fruit, almond and almond blossom, all of this enveloped in a toasty-biscuity melange. See what I mean? It’s a champagne of dignity and effervescent elegance, though quite substantial, and features crisp acid, touches of baking spice and wheatmeal, flavors of citrus and roasted lemon, and a vast limestone-laced finish. Yikes, I certainly rate this one Excellent.

It’s a Terry Theise Estate Selection, imported by Michael Skurnick Wines, Syosset, N.Y.

Prices are all over the freakin’ map for this champagne. It costs about $50 in Memphis, but can easily be found on the Internet for anywhere from $26 to $40.

On The Fifth Day of Christmas … well, you have to check back tomorrow.

Two weeks ago I posted a piece to BTYH about the lack of official regulation of such terms as “reserve,” “private reserve,” “special selection” and so on, label distinctions that imply that a wine is better than its “regular” stablemate from the same winery but are seldom specific as to the details. Consumers need more information than merely the word “reserve” (or whatever variation) on a label to help in choosing a wine at a retail store or restaurant, especially since high-minded phrases like these frequently show up on cheap wines.

So today, I launch a series of posts that will compare regular bottlings of California wines with their “reserve” counterparts, classic_merlot_big.jpg starting with a pretty basic and well-known pair of wines, the Clos du Bois Merlot and Reserve Merlot, both from the excellent 2004 vintage. Winemaker for these wines was Erik Olsen.

The Clos du Bois Merlot for 2004 carries a North Coast designation. The sketchy information on the bottle’s back label doesn’t explain where the grapes come from, but the winery’s website tells us that 71 percent of the fruit derives from Sonoma County, with the rest coming from Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties. The blend of grapes on this wine is 90 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon and 5 percent “other,” which could imply cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot or, you know, anything else. Clos du Bois produced 345,000 cases of this wine, or 4,140,000 bottles, which is why the wine is ubiquitous on wine lists in the country’s mid-level steak houses and bistro style restaurants, especially in wine-by-the-glass programs. (Yes, the label pictured here, taken from the winery’s website, indicates a Sonoma County designation, but it’s really North Coast.)

What’s it like? Solid, firm, well-knit, offering cherry-berry scents with touches of smoke and spice. (The wine ages 13 months in French, Eastern European and American oak, 20 percent new.) In the mouth, flavors of black currant and black cherry are permeated by polished oak and grainy tannins that bring in elements of briers, brambles and underbrush to dominate the finish. In other words: A nice wine, and I’ll rate it Very Good. On the other hand, I think a suggested retail price of $18 is a bit beyond the pale, and indeed you find the wine discounted to $14 or $15 all over the place. Drink now through 2008 or ’09.

The Clos du Bois Reserve Merlot 2004, Alexander Valley, announces its special nature first by its more artsy label, by (of course) res_merlot_big.jpg the term “reserve,” used twice, and by the definite appellation, Alexander Valley, which lies within Sonoma County. The make-up of the wine is 91 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon and 4 percent malbec. It aged in wood longer than its North Coast cousin, 21 months opposed to 13 months, and in all French oak (half new), the most expensive barrels in the winemaking realm. Clos du Bois produced 13,500 cases of this reserve wine. These details don’t appear on the back label, which merely delivers a rather ecstatic description of the wine’s character.

And what is that character? The immediate impression is of a cool minerally bouquet that gradually unfolds ripe black currant and black cherry scents suffused by dried spice and potpourri. The wine’s texture is like dusty velvet infused with minerals; flavors of currants, cherries and plums offer hints of lead pencil, lavender, bitter chocolate and mocha, all of this enveloped in spicy oak and chewy, grainy tannins. Obviously, this “reserve” wine displays more dimension and detail than its stablemate, and in this sense, I think, justifies its heightened status. On the other hand, simply as a wine fashioned to exist at the reserve level, I see little justification for it, rating it Very Good+ and wishing I could bump it up to Excellent, but the real depth of character is not there. I can see ordering a glass of this wine in a restaurant to accompany a hanger steak and frites or pork loin or similar hearty fare, but it’s not a wine I would stock up on, even at the suggested price, which is $23. Best for consumption from now through 2010 or ’11.

Yes, that’s right, prosecco, the soft, fruity, floral and appealing sparking wine from northeastern Italy that makes a perfect light-hearted aperitif, especially when you’re serving bubbly to hordes of revelers or before a dinner party. “Prosecco” is the name of the grape and the name of the product. Prosecco fills in nicely for sipping with fish and shellfish hors d’oeuvres and antipasti, deicavalieri.gif occasions and food on which the best champagnes and sparkling wines would be wasted. Well, depending on your attitude and fiduciary prowess, maybe not, but when you’re having the Swiss Guard for New Year’s Eve and the pocketbook is a consideration, prosecco neatly stands to attention.

Prominent today is the Maschio dei Cavalieri Prosecco di Valdobbiabene Brut, non-vintage. Valdobbiabene, near the Piave river in the Veneto, is the official D.O.C. for the production of prosecco. The grape is also grown nearby in Colli Trevigiani. Prosecco sparkling wine can be frizzante, lightly fizzy, or spumante, fully bubbling. These products are rarely made by the champagne method of the second fermentation in the bottle, but are made in the bulk “charmat” process.

Anyway, the Maschio dei Cavalieri Prosecco di Valdobbiabene Brut is a superior rendition of the style. It sports a lovely medium gold color, a satisfactory stream of moderately tiny bubbles and a delicate cloud-like bouquet of peaches and lemons with hints of limestone and toast. This sparkling wine is slightly sweet at the entry, but it quickly turns dry in the mouth, the sweetness leveled by crisp acidity and a steely backbone. Very charming, with a rating of Very Good+. VB Imports, Old Brookville, N.Y. brought 1,000 cases to the U.S. Suggested retail price is $20.

In The New York Times this morning, food writer Alex Witchel uses the phrase “very, very dry, very very expensive” champagne, but very, very dry champagne doesn’t have to be very, very expensive.

Example: The Laurent-Perrier Brut L-P (from a house founded in 1812), a blend of 45% chardonnay, 40% pinot noir and 15% pinot meunier that quivers with keen minerality, zinging acid and exquisitely appointed dryness. The color is burnished light gold, and 37652.jpg the glass is filled invitingly with millions of tiny, seething bubbles. Immediately, you smell the biscuits and toast, then green apple and citrus with hints of clove and ginger. There’s a touch of lushness in the mouth, with nutty, slightly roasted citrus flavors, but the emphasis is on the elegance and austerity of chalk and limestone; the effect is taut and distancing, almost glacial, though the finish gets toastier after a few minutes. LL and I love this style of champagne for its Alpine vivacity, purity and brightness. An Excellent rating. Suggested retail price is about $37; prices range on the Internet from about $30 to $60, so you pays yer money and you takes yer choice.Imported by Laurent-Perrier U.S. Inc., Sausalito, Ca.. Visit the company’s website here.

On the Third Day of Christmas with champagne or sparkling wine … well, you have to check back tomorrow.

… we drank a bottle of Pol Roger Reserve Brut with our usual Christmas morning breakfast of country ham, eggs, grits, red-eye gravy and homemade biscuits. Yep, I do this every year, and somehow it has developed that our favorite champagne with this pr_brutnv.jpg very Southern meal is this exact very French one.

And having said that, I will announce the “Twelve Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine” series on BiggerThanYourHead, which starts today and goes through January 5, the fete called Twelfth Night, which falls on the eve of Epiphany. Each day I will describe a different champagne or sparkling wine, looking for varied styles and prices and versatility.

The house of Pol Roger was founded in 1849 and is still owned by the family.

The Pol Roger Reserve Brut is a nonvintage blend of one-third each chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes. The champagne is a blend of at least two vintages and often three or four. It is not sold until the youngest component is at least three years old.

The moment you pour some Pol Roger Reserve Brut into a tall flute, aromas of fresh biscuits and toast emerge from the glass. The champagne is a pale gold color with a hint of silver, and the tiny bubbles form a consistent up-rushing stream. The champagne is taut and nervy, very dry and crisp, burgeoning with chalk and limestone that permeate flavors of lemon and roasted lemon with a touch of caramelized pear and dried spice. The finish is long, spicy and minerally. Excellent quality.

The dynamic crispness, the crackling energy of the champagne cut through the richness of the meal, the bracing saltiness of the ham, the rough lushness of the red-eye gravy. For those of you who don’t know, red-eye gravy is made by pouring a cup of coffee into the pan drippings from the ham, stirring and scraping to get all those ham bits loose and simmering for a few minutes to reduce it a bit.

Prices on the Internet are all over the map for this champagne, almost unconscionably so; look for a range between about $35 and $50. Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York

On the Second Day of Christmas … well, you have to come back tomorrow to see.

By the way, an account of last night’s Christmas Eve dinner at our house — a traditional “English” meal — with a great Bordeaux red wine and a port from 1994 is here.

The term “old vines” on a wine label conjures an image of a hillside in Sonoma County that supports thick, gnarled, somewhat oldvines2_01.jpg stunted grapevines, usually zinfandel, planted in the 1880s or 1890s or early 1900s by Italian immigrants. The vines are so old that they must be carefully tended, and they manage to bring forth only a handful of grapes in each vintage. Yet how deep, rich and flavorful are the wines that these venerable vines produce, like the essence of the grapes, the vine and the vineyard itself. Drinking an “old vine” zinfandel, we feel as if we are imbibing not merely wine but the history of California itself, the struggle of the immigrants, the tales of failure and success, the origins of the Golden State’s wine industry.

But how old is an old vine? Sometimes a wine label that uses the term “old vines” will state that the wine was made from 50-year-old vines. Is that really old compared to a vineyard planted in the 1890s? If one producer can call the wine made from 100-year-old vines “Old Vines,” does the producer of a wine made from 30-year-old vines have the right to use the same term?

Before we tackle the issue itself — because the term “old vines,” like the designation “reserve” and its many variations, is completely unregulated by state or federal laws — let’s talk about the concept itself.

It is an article of faith, in Europe (especially France) as well as in California, that wine made from old vines is inherently better than wine made from young (or younger) vines. A vineyard, after being planted, usually takes seven to 10 years to produce sineann-old-vine-zinfandel-250p-flat.jpg grapes that might be made into superior wine, while vines at the ages of, say, 25 to 50 years may potentially produce wines of great character. Wines made from those 100-to-120-year-old zinfandel or “field blend” vineyards in Sonoma County can be a models of purity, intensity and integrity.

However, the term “Old Vines” on a wine label does not guarantee, as some writers assert, that a wine will display the highest quality; our notions of “old vine” virtues are enmeshed in romantic ideas about the history of the vineyards and the wines they produce. As Tom Pellechia wrote about the “old vines” concept on VinoFictions in August: “Of course, this whole subject is mere sentimentality. Whether they are old vines or new vines, it still takes good grapegrowing and winemaking to produce the best wine.” Yep, it’s possible to take great grapes from a venerable vineyard and fuck up the whole process; I’ve had “old vine” zinfandels that tasted like stewed raisins on steroids.

Conceding, though, that it’s possible to make fabulous and unique wines from old vine vineyards, what should the consumer who plucks such a wine from a shelf in a neighborhood wine and liquor store think? Since the term “old vines” is officially unsupervised, producers can put anything on labels they want to, even if the vineyards are 25 or 30 or 35 years old. What, then, is the proprietor of truly old vineyards, over which a great deal of pride and work are exercised, supposed to do? Can’t we help out the innocent wine buyer?

I would favor regulation from the TTB that at least required producers who used the term “old vines” to state, on the back label, the age of the vines or vineyard, and if possible the name of the vineyard, from which the grapes derived, as in, 1998-z4.jpg “Made from vines planted in 1920 in the Big Heart Vineyard” or, also acceptable, “Produced from grapes planted circa 1895 in Sonoma Valley,” since sometimes exact dates and deeds are obscure.

Joel Peterson, founder of and former winemaker for Ravenswood, recommends that vines be classified in this way: 0 to 10 years, young vines; 10 to 50 years, middle age; 50 to 80 years, old vines; over 80 years, ancient vines — see the discussion about old vine zinfandel at the website of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission — though I wonder if we need an official classification for young and middle aged vines. Meanwhile, Tom Wark, writing on Dec. 14, on Fermentation in his guise as “Wine Czar,” recommended that all “old vines” be required to be 50 years old or older, a scheme that has the advantage of simplicity.

In any case, consumers need to know with confidence that when they pick up a bottle of wine designated “Old Vines” or “Century Vines” or “Grandfather Vines” that they’re getting something real, not a phrase tricked out by a producer’s marketing department.

FK took the photograph of a zinfandel vine in the Barricia Vineyard in Sonoma Valley, originally planted in 1858 and replanted between 1885 and 1940.

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