December 2009


Here’s the Big Night before the Big Relaxing Day that inaugurates the Whole New Ball-Game, Year-Wise! Well, as we learn when we’re about three years old, a new year, however pristine it may seem to shine with potential possibilities, does not mean a tabula rasa upon which to write our lives anew. Forget that, Jack! Still, as a culture we are addicted to the idea that this night must be celebrated with wild abandon, not to mention bacchanalian verve. Not us. LL and I stopped going out on New Year’s Eve a decade ago. No drunken parties. No forced conviviality in restaurants. We stay home, watch a movie, have a glass of champagne at midnight. Wake the dogs. Dance around the Yule log. We do not sing “Auld Lang Syne.”

So, now, with wild abandon, I’ll offer three very different sparkling wine recommendations appropriate for whatever sort of celebration you have planned tonight. “Something for every palate, purse and purpose” is my motto. These are all French because, I dunno, just because.
_____________________________________________________________________________________

First, if you’re having a party for the entire cast and crew of Mad Men — and you know how they drink — lay in a case or two of the Louis Perdrier Brut, a non-vintage quaffer that features some of the most unlikely grapes to go into a sparkling wine: ugni blanc, chenin blanc, folle blanche and menu pineau, the latter an obscure grape dying out in the Loire Valley. I was surprised at how tasty this little number is. You’ll find hints of baked apple, lemon and limestone, a crisp dry nature and an adequate supply of bubbles. Good+ and a Bargain at about $9.
Imported by Cannon Wines, San Francisco
_____________________________________________________________________________________

Moving up several scales, try another and more complex crowd-pleaser, the Jean-Baptiste Adam Cremant d’Alsace Brut. Made from pinot blanc grapes in the champagne method, this compound of ginger and spice and everything nice neatly balances a chalky, limestone-like character with soft, round peach and pear flavors and with heart-racing acidity and effervescence. A touch of orange zest completes a really charming, airy, thirst-quenching package. Very Good+. About $20.
Imported by Winebow Inc., New York.
_____________________________________________________________________________________
On to a serious substantial champagne suitable for small gatherings or a New Year’s Eve dinner party. The Lamiable Brut Grand Cru is made from 80 percent pinot noir grapes and 20 percent chardonnay. The Lamiable family are recoltant-manipulants, “grower-winemakers,” meaning that they make their champagnes from grapes they own and farm. These happen to be from Grand Cru vineyards, the highest level in Champagne. The result here is a pale golden, deeply spicy, vibrant and resonant champagne, citrusy and yeasty, imbued with elements of cinnamon toast and roasted hazelnuts and smoke. The texture is frothy, lusciously creamy but electrified by blade-like acidity and a charge of damp limestone. One feels the confidence and elan of this impressive champagne. Excellent. Prices range from about $50 to $60.
Imported by Robert Kacher Selections, Washington D.C.

And Happy New Year. Really. I mean it.
_____________________________________________________________________________________


Looking back through two years of “Twelve Days of Christmas” series, I find it difficult to believe that I never included the Scharffenberger Brut. It might be easy to overlook this champagne method sparkling wine because it’s so familiar, but don’t make that mistake. The Scharffenberger Brut never fails to be delightful, and at the price, it represents Good Value. The winery was founded in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley in 1981 by John Scharffenberger, but from 1998 to mid 2004 (when it was owned by Veuve Clicquot), its sparkling wine was known by the generic and rather senseless name of Pacific Echo; thank goodness saner heads prevailed after Roederer purchased the company. Composed two-thirds of pinot noir grapes and one-third chardonnay, the Scharffenberger Brut is a pale lemon-straw color invested with a profusion of tiny bubbles. Aromas of apples and pears are bolstered by toasty, biscuity elements with a touch of hazelnuts and a wisp of almond blossom. This sparkling wine is notably crisp and effervescent, yet slightly lush, with tart apple and quince flavors and a hint of roasted lemon buoyed by brisk acidity and limestone-like minerality. A terrific sparkling wine for small parties and receptions. Very Good+. About $18.

The house of Henriot was founded in 1808 by Apolline Henriot, widow of a vigneron and scholar whose family had owned vineyards since 1640. Henriot makes about 55,000 cases of champagne annually, which puts it in the fair-to-middling level; by comparison Taittinger makes 355,000 cases a year and Mumm makes 625,000.

The color of the Henriot Brut Rosé (nv), a blend of 42 percent chardonnay and 58 percent pinot noir, is ethereal pale copper with a glint of pale peach, enlivened by a swirling froth of tiny bubbles. This is a supremely elegant champagne, its aromas of macerated strawberries and raspberries etched with steely minerality. In the mouth, that red fruit takes on the aspect of dried raspberries and dried red currants, buoyed by orange zest and high notes of peach and mango. The texture is notably crisp and lively but cushioned by some creaminess. A tide of limestone teems up from the finish and moves forward into the mid-palate for exhilarating effect. Just a damned lovely drink! Excellent. Prices range from about $55 to $75.

Imported by Henriot Inc., New York.

Received as a sample for review.

I don’t mean to be a jerk or anything, but you’ll have to make a few telephone calls or Internet inquiries to find the Mount Horrocks Watervale Riesling 2006, from South Australia’s Clare Valley region. Stephanie Toole runs this small winery in an old country railway station; she is, to my mind, one of the world’s great producers of riesling wines. At three and a half years old, her Watervale Riesling ’06 has gathered to itself astonishing vibrancy and resonance, having entered a state of such pure and transparent minerality — damp shale, limestone and steel –it’s a wonder drinking it that you don’t turn into luminous crystal. First, though, you catch whiffs of lychee, peach and intense lime peel borne atop penetrating petrol (or rubber eraser) aromas. Speaking of luminous, the acidity practically shimmers in the glass, bringing to the wine a sense of trenchant, eager vitality, fit companion for a spicy nature that burgeons as the moments pass. The wine is very dry, but that character is tempered by a lovely texture that balances bright crispness with a modicum of soft, ripe stone-fruit lushness. We contentedly drank this one night with steelhead salmon, dressed only with salt, pepper and lemon juice and briefly seared. If you can find a case, drink this through 2015 or ’16, catching it in states as it evolves. Exceptional. About $19.

Imported by USA Wine West, Sausalito, Ca., for The Australian Premium Wine Collection.

This was a sample bottle sent for review purposes.

Yes, friends, there are bubbles concealed in the Plutonian depths of the blood-red Hill of Content Sparkling Red (non-vintage), made primarily from shiraz grapes grown in the South Australian region of Padthaway. The first time I encountered sparkling shiraz, as it happens on a trip to Australian, my impression was of drinking sparkling roast beef, but I was so much younger and naive 11 years ago. Certainly the Hill of Content Sparkling Red is a little meaty but not that brashly beefy as the example to which I was initially introduced. The bottle is sealed with a crown cap — like on a soda bottle — which indicates that the pressure inside is not as great as the pressure inside most sparkling wines; this is gently effervescent, a breeze of bubbles rather than a torrent. The bouquet offers plums and raspberries and notes of toast and leather. In the mouth, flavors of spiced red currants and cassis, as well as plums, are cushioned in a dense chewy texture; the base wine for this sparkler spends two-and-a-half years in French oak, and you feel the force and the resonance. A few minutes in the glass bring up hints of fruitcake, if fruitcake were not sweet, and more leather. I have seen this rather astonishing product listed on some retail websites as a dessert wine, but it clearly is not; imagine the driest wine you ever tasted and then go beyond that into a region of Platonic dryness. What’s most unusual here is the sense that you are drinking a chilled sparkling wine and partaking of cold tannins. And yet — always an “and yet” — there’s a pretty, winsome quality about it, a thread of something floral and delicately macerated the belies its size and power. Very Good+, and a Great Bargain at about $15.

The Australian Premium Wine Collection.

Sent as a sample for review.

Let’s go rosé today, which seems appropriate for a relaxing Sunday.

The Domaine Carneros Cuvee de la Pompadour Brut Rosé is composed of 58 percent pinot noir grapes and 42 percent chardonnay. The winery, in the Carneros district north of San Francisco, is owned by the Champagne house of Taittinger. The color is pale peach and salmon with a translucent gold sheen; one of the most seductive elements of rosé sparkling wines is that the upward rush of tiny bubbles looks like infinite flecks of gold fire. When the cork come out of the bottle, a winsome scent of strawberry shortcake and fresh biscuits fills the air, to which are added hints of peach, red currants and orange zest. This attractive bouquet is succeeded by flavors of peach and dried currants buoyed by layers of chalk and limestone. The texture is almost creamy, but edged with crisp acidity for liveliness and vitality. A lovely dry brut rosé, delightful to drink. Excellent. About $36 (at the winery, but I paid $30 in Memphis).

December 27 is the Holy Day of John, apostle and evangelist, patron saint of writer, theologians and publishers.

Yesterday, our sparkling wine was delightful and fairly inexpensive. For today, Boxing Day, as they call it in Merry Old England, let’s go straight to the heart of Champagne for a truly impressive example of a blanc de blancs champagne, that is, made 100 percent from chardonnay grapes. Another distinction of the Guy Charlemagne Reserve Brut Blanc de Blancs is that its grapes derive completely from Grand Cru vineyards, which is to say the best. The house is a recoltant-manipulant, farmer-winemaker, meaning that the proprietors here, fathers and sons going back to 1892, cultivate their own vines as well as make the champagne. The house, located in the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, produces about 10,800 cases annually.

The Guy Charlemagne Reserve Brut Blanc de Blancs is a resonant and generous champagne. The color is icy-pale blond; tiny bubbles seethe upward in a frothing tide. The bouquet is expansive, yeasty, bready and smoky, offering notes of spice-inflected roasted lemon and damp limestone. Wow, what terrific presence and tone this champagne displays, filling the mouth with the vibrancy of crisp acidity and flavors of baked apple, pear, quince and toasted hazelnuts. As deliriously pleasing as those elements are, however, the grand effect is of exquisite balance between substance and elegance; the limestone-drenched finish carries a thread of the ethereal through it. Excellent. About $65.

Dec. 26 is also the Holy Day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. It’s the day when King Wenceslas “looked out … as the snow lay all about, deep and crisp and even,” at least according to J.M. Neale, who wrote the lyrics to that familiar carol in the 19th Century. The principle is that the fortunate should tend to the poor and needy on the day after Christmas, so you don’t get a glass of champagne until you’ve done a good deed.

This was a sample bottle from William Harrison Imports, Manassas, Va.

My former father-in-law, Ed Harrison — whom we saw last weekend at one of my daughter’s dance performances — at some point wisely bought a case of the Simi Reserve Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon 1974, Alexander Valley, a wine of which he was particularly fond, and with good reason: This is one of the great Simi cabernets. At the time, in Memphis, it sold for $16 a bottle. Winemaker in the early 1970s at Simi was Mary Ann Graf, with the legendary Andre Tchelistcheff serving as consultant. After passing through many ownership phases, Simi is now part of the Icon Estates portfolio of Constellation Wines.

I think it was the last bottle of the case that Ed opened for Christmas dinner in 1984, and what a superb wine it was, rich, mellow and flavorful at 10 years old. Here are my notes from that day:

“Wonderful wine, aged to perfection. Fading brick-reddish color; fragrant nose, lots of depth of fruit & currant undertones; soft tannin, bell-tone roundenss, elegant fruit, levels of berry undertones, dry yet with a hint of ripe sweetness. Long finish.”

Wow, I can almost smell and taste that wine now! Next time I see Ed Harrison, I’ll have to thank for for that experience.

Today — Christmas Day — we launch the Third Annual “12 Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine,” leading to Twelfth Night. These are the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas, that is, from the birth of Jesus to the Epiphany, a time of festivity that encompasses the New Year and includes eating, drinking and merriment designed to combats Winter’s cold and woe. It’s a perfect time, therefore, to feature 12 days that celebrate the varieties of sparkling wines, their methods of production, the different grapes from which they are made, the regions from which they originate.

Primarily, I’ll offer one example each day, though on New Year’s Eve and Twelfth Night I’ll include several on the roster, and perhaps on other days too, just for fun.

A sparkling wine we took particular delight in this week was the Dopff & Irion Cremant d’Alsace Brut, made in the “traditional method,” that is, the champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle, from pinot blanc and pinot auxerrois grapes, half and half. This is a delicate, aperitif-style sparkling wine that weaves scents of apples and pears with flint and hints of almond and almond blossom. A trace of toasty almond lingers in the mouth, along with spiced pear and a touch of lychee, enlivened by crisp acidity and a chilly finger of limestone that creeps in on the finish. Really charming. Very Good+. About $20.

Sent as a sample for review from the importer, Dreyfus, Ashby & Co., in New York. Limited distribution, so Worth a Search.

There’s a sense — or possibly several but never mind that now — that I live in a different world than many of my readers do, and that’s because I receive wine samples for free. Many of these are unsolicited; the friendly UPS or FedEx person comes to the door and hands over a package or two and I sign for them and bring them inside and open them, and sometimes I think, “Oh, great, this will be interesting” or “Oh, yikes, wow” or “Geeze, why do they send me this crap.” Much of it comes after inquiry. Them: “May we send you such-and-such wine?” Me: “Why, yes, thank you very much.” Some I ask for a sample. Me: “Would you send me this wine to try?” Them: “Hell, yeah.” I’m certain there are writers and publications that receive far more wine than I do, but I probably receive more wine than writers and bloggers just starting out. After all, I’ve been doing this for 25 years.

Some wineries and importers have been sending me wine for 15 or 20 years, a process that allows consistency in my coverage and reviewing. And some wineries and importers stopped sending wine when my weekly newspaper column folded in 2004 and never picked up again. C’est la vie.

I mention these matters in an attempt to prove that when I drink a glass of the Morgan Double L Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Lucia Highlands ($48), with my cheese toast, as I did yesterday at lunch, I’m not trying to be a jerk and imply, “Ha-ha, loser, see what I get to drink with my cheese toast and you don’t.” I mean, the wine is there, it needs to be tasted, there’s an opportunity, so why not? Sure, the pleasure principle is a factor too, as in, “Hmmm, maybe I should open this skimpy, undernourished little $6 merlot with my cheese toast instead of the Morgan Double L Pinot ’07,” and then I say, “Nnnnaaaahhhhh.” After all, I can always do the SULM in a line-up with a bunch of other inexpensive reds, n’est-ce pas?

On the other hand, perhaps none of this requires any explanation or justification whatsoever.

Allons.

The Morgan Double L Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Lucia Highlands, is absolutely beautiful, a smooth, shapely, harmonious mouthful of wine. Aromas of smoky black cherry and cola twine with mulberry, rhubarb and hints of cloves and mossy-like earthiness; a few minutes in the glass bring whiffs of violets and camellia. In the mouth, the wine performs as a model of the marriage between elegance and power; between balance and integration, on the one hand, and buffed tannins and vibrant acidity on the other. Flavors of black cherry, black currant and plum burgeon with spicy nuances, laid on a foundation of rooty briers and brambles and a texture that drapes the palate like satin. The subtle oak regimen is 11 months in French barrels, 50 percent of which are new. Double L is farmed organically. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Production was 1,050 cases. Excellent. About $48.

Last night, LL braised ox-tails with bacon and a smoked ham hock, a bottle of merlot and a bouquet of celery, carrots, leeks, sage and parsley. This cooked in the oven for, oh, four hours. She served it with a mash of celery root, sweet potatoes and white potatoes. It was brilliant.

Casting about for a wine, naturally I thought about syrah/shiraz or zinfandel, but then I decided to throw discretion and even sense to the winds, and I opened a bottle of Joseph Drouhin Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru 2007. If ever a red Burgundy could stand up to such a hearty dish, this would be it.

At about 125 acres, Vougeot is the largest vineyard in Burgundy, It is also the most minutely parceled, its area divided among 70 owners, some of whom have proprietorship over only a few rows of vines; this is pinot noir, of course. The firm of Joseph Drouhin owns two parcels that amount to 2.25 acres. Placement is everything in Vougeot; vines at the bottom of the hill do not produce wine as good as vines higher up the slope. Drouhin’s parcels are on the incline, facing east. The parcels are farmed according to biodynamic principles (though how do you compensate for the people around you that don’t farm by the same method?); harvesting is by hand; yeasts are indigenous. The wine rests is oak 14 to 18 months, depending on the year, but typically only 20 percent of the barrels are new.

Drouhin’s Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru 2007 is a beautiful wine, too, but in a different way. This is the beauty of confidence balanced between poise and assertiveness. It’s a wine that could swagger if it wanted to but clearly doesn’t need to. In fact, beyond this wine’s warmth and richness, beyond its layers of spiced and macerated black cherries and plums grounded in dried spice, shale-like minerality and acidity that plows an authoritative furrow, there’s a sense of reticence, of holding itself back for the proper moment. The elements of dried spice, tending a bit toward the exotic, blossom amazingly in the glass, pulling black fruit with them, turning increasingly seductive; at the same time, however, the wine becomes drier, picking up sinew and dusty tannic austerity. Try this from 2011 or ’13 through 2017 or ’20. Sixty cases were imported to the U.S. Excellent. About $172.

Wow, you’re saying, if both of these wines rate Excellent, why not just forget about the Clos de Vougeot ’07 and go with the Morgan Double L? Well, sure. Let’s admit that not many people possess the fiduciary prowess to buy the Clos de Vougeot or the cellar in which to let it mature. On the other hand, the two wines offer quite different but equally eloquent and authentic expressions of the grape. You pays yer money and you takes yer choice. I’m lucky enough that I was able to try both of them on the same day and to tell you about them.

Next Page »