January 2010

Here’s a winsome sparkling wine to indulge in come late afternoon or while you’re prepping for dinner or hanging around the kitchen. Casalnova Prosecco del Veneto, made from prosecco grapes grown near the town of Conegliano, north of Venice, sports a pale straw color, myriad smallish bubbles and aromas of warm metal, citrus, lemon curd and delicate almond blossom. The wine is quite crisp and lively, a bit sweet at first– it’s designated “Extra Dry,” which in the parlance of sparkling wine means “a little sweet” — but it’s dry and a mite stony from mid-palate back; the texture is slightly creamy, and subtle flavors of peach and roasted lemon are touched with hints of cloves and cinnamon. There’s a shade of lemon drop in the finish. This is a buoyant, balletic prosecco that offers a sense of substance beyond what most versions deliver. Very Good+. About $18.

Imported by Quintessential Family of Wines, Napa, Cal.

A sample for review.

I was unfamiliar with the small house of Haton & Fils, but having sampled three of its products I wonder what I did with my misspent youth. These are champagnes of finesse and elegance, completely delightful but never frivolous. Located in a picturesque compound in Damery, in the heart of the Marne Valley, Haton & Fils has been run by fathers and sons for four generations.

Here are the Haton champagnes that I tried; they were supplied by William-Harrison Imports, Manassas, Va.

First, the pale gold Haton & Fils Grand Reserve Brut teems with scents of apples and pears infused by hints of biscuits and cookie dough. Engagingly effervescent, with a flurry of glinting bubbles, this champagne is delicate, crisp and svelte; notes of red currants and citrus are infused with cinnamon toast and a subtle touch of roasted hazelnuts, layered with mineral-like elements of steel and limestone. A lovely presence, totally charming and compulsively drinkable. Excellent. About $55.

Next, the Haton et Fils Grand Reserve Blanc de Blancs Brut is lovely and charming. Yeasty, bready aromas of pear, quince and ginger seem to drift from an infinite flotilla of tiny bubbles. A hint of sweetness at the entry quickly turns dry amid layers of chalk and limestone that lend some austerity to the finish; that dry character and tingling acidity are nicely balanced by ripe stone-fruit flavors. A few minutes in the glass bring a note of hot steel to the bouquet, implying that this delightful champagne has a serious edge. Very Good+. About $58.

And finally, the masterpiece. The color of the Haton & Fils “Cuvée René Haton” Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut is palest platinum blond with a teeming fountain of bubbles. Made completely from chardonnay grapes, this is a champagne that’s ethereal without being fragile; elegant without being delicate; if it were a face, you’d say that it has fine bones. There’s a hint of biscuits and toast in the bouquet, but this is predominately dedicated to permeable layers of crisp minerality and brisk acidity. In fact, this is an unusually fresh and lively champagne, its tendency toward austerity prettily relieved by a weaving of pear and lime through its fabric. An exemplary blanc de blancs. Excellent. About $62.

One of the most gratifying aspects of producing the “Twelves Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine” series lies in the discovery of new or different products that bring knowledge and delight, to readers, I hope, as well as to me and LL (who would not allow me to taste anything sparkling without her participation).

Such a discovery is the Château des Vaults Brut Sauvage, from the renowned Domaine du Closel in the tiny Savennières appellation in the central Loire Valley. Southwest of the medieval city of Angers, this area, part of the Anjou-Saumur region, is the cradle, the homeland of chenin blanc, which supplies 85 percent of the grapes for this wine, designated Crémant de Loire; the other 15 percent is cabernet franc, obviously quickly taken off their dark purple skins, because the Château des Vaults Brut Sauvage reveals not the merest blush of pink. This is pale, pale, palest gold with a shadow of silver unfolded when one turns the glass in the light. “Brut Sauvage” means that after the second fermentation in the bottle — the heart of the champagne method — the wine receives no dosage, the final topping off with sugar that determines the sweetness of a sparkling wine. Rather, sans dosage, this is bone-dry yet not distant or austere. Aromas of yeast and fresh biscuits support hints of macerated peach and baked pear and a wispy scent of a shy white flower. In the mouth, a delicate line of lemon, lime peel and toasted hazelnuts threads through what feels like liquid, effervescent limestone. The whole effect is sleek and elegant, real yet evanescent; it’s quite a beauty. Excellent, and a Bargain at about $18. Limited distribution, so mark it also Worth a Search.

LDM Wines Imports (Louis/Dressner), New York.

This was a sample bottle for review.

Saturday night & I just got paid,
Fool about my money, don’t try to save.
My heart say go, go, have a time,
Cuz it’s Saturday night and I’m feeling fine!

Surely that American philosopher Little Richard spoke the plain truth in Rip It Up — in these lyrics recalled by memory from the dark abysm of the late 1950s — that Saturday night is special. (Hence the name of the .38 revolver, n’est-ce pas?) So to lend celebratory buoyancy to your Saturday night, strictly within the parameters of the Yuletide spirit of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” of course, here are three sparkling wines (review samples) from as many countries. As Little Richard sayeth, rip it up and, um, ball it up, mes amis.

Prosecco this and prosecco that, and it’s all mainly barely decent gluggable fizz. The Bortolomiol Prior Brut Valdobbiadene Prosecco is something else. Even LL, a notable disdainer of prosecco, said that she would go out of her way to drink this. Prosecco is the name of the grape as well as the beverage; the best area of production lies between the towns of Valdobbiadene and Conegliano, straight north of Venice. Prosecco is made in the Charmat method of second fermentation in a pressurized tank. The pale-straw-colored Bortolomiol Prior Brut is as clean as a freshly-wiped steel blade, and it feels, indeed, as if it has something of steel’s tensile rigor, illumined by a flare of bright acidity and aching limestone. This is as elegant as prosecco gets, yet despite the hauteur of arched eyebrows and high cheekbones, there’s a winsome core of peachy creaminess here, a hint of lime zest, a touch of almond blossom. Excellent. About $18.
Imported by Dreyfus, Ashby & Sons, New York.

The Spanish sparkling wine termed cava is designated on labels as metodo tradicional, meaning the champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle, though, naturally, the wines do not rest on the lees in those bottles for years, as in Champagne, but for months. Poema Cava Brut, from the Penedès region of Catalonia, southwest of Barcelona, has no truck with the innovation of the chardonnay grape; this cava is made with the traditional macabeo (40%), xarel-lo — which sounds like the name of one of Superman’s cousins — (40%), and parellada (20%). Actually, Poema spends 18 months in the cellar, lending it a sense of depth not seen in many cava sparklers. The earthiness common to cava is here, but seemingly softened and refined. Poema Cava Brut is fresh and crisp, with appealing elements of citrus and candied lemon peel, a trace of almond, a tide of dusty limestone, all wrapped in a deftly balanced package. Steady bubbles, too. Very Good+ and A Steal at about $13.
Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase N.Y.

Finca La Linda Extra Brut, from Bodegas Luigi Bosca, in Argentina’s Mendoza region, is composed of 50 percent chardonnay grapes and 50 percent semillon grapes, a most unusual blend; in fact, I can’t think of another sparkling wine I’ve encountered that includes semillon, though I’m certain my Alert Readers will let me know of some that should have been obvious. Made in the Charmat process, La Linda Extra Brut is a slightly brassy green-gold color, within which myriad shapely bubbles foam up in gold flecks; aromas of pears, almond blossom, hazelnuts toasted in butter and cinnamon toast draw the nose. In the mouth, this sparkler is very earthy, quite toasty, full-bodied and vibrant with acidity. In fact, with a finish that grows increasingly earthy and spicy, La Linda possesses the swagger to stand up to substantial hors d’oeuvres; smoked trout would be a blessing. Very Good+. About $15.
Various importers in New England, Florida and the West Coast.

I suppose we have unofficially moved Christmas Breakfast to New Year’s Day, because this is the second year that we’ve had it on New Year’s Day. This is a traditional Southern breakfast that I started doing probably 15 years ago, consisting of fresh biscuits, country ham, eggs, grits and red-eye gravy and champagne. This morning — more like early afternoon — LL and I sat down to this downhome treat and sipped on an utterly fascinating champagne, and by “fascinating” I don’t mean in the sense that we say, “What a fascinating [and boring] lecture” or “What a fascinating [and inedible] entree,” I mean fascinating in the best way, as in beguiling and mysterious.

This is the Egly-Ouriet “Les Vignes de Vrigny” Premier Cru Brut Champagne from a small house in Ambonnay run by Francis Egly. The wine is unusual because it is made completely from pinot meunier grapes, typically the minority percentage in a champagne blend that combines the region’s three grapes, pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier; these grapes are from slightly more than 40-year-old vines around the village of Vrigny. It’s also rare for a non-vintage champagne to spend 40 months on the lees (the spend yeast cells) in bottle, slowly building character. The bottle we tried was disgorged in November 2007, so bottle-age has added to the complexity. There’s very little dosage, so this champagne can be described as bone-dry.

The color is pale gold-blond with silver highlights; the infinitesimally tiny bubbles surge upward in a dynamic fountain. What is most fascinating about this champagne is the way in which every aspect of it must be abrogated to the concept of steel. It smells like apples, poached pears, thyme and steel. Oh, and it smells like brioche, hazelnuts and steel. And, oh yes, it offers flavors of spiced pear, ginger, lemon curd and steel. It displays the elegance of steel and the power of steel and altogether seems to be an entity for which the adjective “steely” was conceived. Yet there’s warmth here too, a subtle attractiveness; before it goes all high-toned and austere, this champagne kicks up its heels a bit. Excellent. And fascinating. About $70.

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