December 2010

Tonight is the Big Eve, the occasion upon which one year abruptly terminates and another quickly takes its place; the night for which all forms of sparkling wine were invented. Believe me, you’ll need that glass of bubbly at midnight when you’re standing in a packed room singing “Auld Lang Syne” with a bunch of people you only see once a decade.

Let me offer you, My Readers, four examples of different sorts of sparkling wines, available at different prices and appropriate for different events. They hail from Spain, Italy, Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley and Champagne, as in France. With the exception of the Fourny Brut Rosé, these were samples for review.
Did you invite a mob over tonight? Say the Chilean miners and their wives as well as the combined contestants of Survivor: Surface of the Sun, American Idolatry and The Biggest Loser in History? No need to drop a bundle on your bubbly. Hie thyself tothe nearest wine and liquor store and snap up several cases of the Segura Viudas Brut Reserva, a CAVA sparkling wine from Spain that’s as amazing for its quality as it is for its price, or vice versa. This is a typical CAVA blend of 50 percent macabeo grapes, 35 percent parellada and 15 percent xarel-lo, hands downs my favorite grape name. The color is pale straw-blond. Bubbles are prolific, though the ones that cling to the inside of the glass are slightly larger than the teensy ones that froth up through the middle. It’s a stones and bones sparkler, trifling with sweetness at the entry but immediately segueing into vibrant, crisp dryness buoyed by scintillating limestone. Roasted lemon and lemon balm, hints of tangerine and orange zest, a faint pass at a floral element: all of these qualities add up to lovely charm and delicacy. Very Good. About $10 or $11, but often discounted around the country to $8 or $9.

Imported by Freixenet USA, Sonoma, Cal.
Nino Franco Rustico is consistently one of my favorite prosecco sparkling wines. The grape is called prosecco and so is the product, which is made in the Veneto region in Northeast Italy. Rather than being made in the champagne method of seccond fermentation in the bottle, prosecco is made in the Charmat process in which the second fermentation, which produces the bubbles, occurs in large tanks. The pale straw-gold Nino Franco Rustico is a lightly yet persistently sparkling wine that’s delicate and elegant, but a little earthy, bursting with almond blossom and citrus notes, and lemon-pear flavors resting on a vigorous bed of limestone. Charming, yet with gratifying character. Very Good+. About $17 to $20.

Imported by VinDivino, Chicago.
Let’s say first that the J Brut Rosé, Russian River Valley, is not just effervescent but exhilarating; at the same time, it embodies a sense of engaging elegance and suavity. This is a blend of 56 percent pinot noir and 44 percent chardonnay. The color is pale strawberry-blond; the bouquet exudes subtle scents of smoky peach, strawberry and dried red currants permeated by fresh biscuits, lightly buttered cinnamon toast and the skins of roasted almonds (think of a slim nuance of sweet, bitter and nutty), all backed by clean fresh limestone-like minerality. This is ripe and fleshy in the mouth, an almost thrilling amalgam of tangerine, spiced peach and lime peel supervised rather smartly by crisp acidity and that ever-present limestone element. The finish is long, balanced and lively. We were drinking the J Brut Rosé while snacking on a Spanish cocktail mix that included almonds, dried chickpeas, dried favas and dried corn, with lots of salt and spice. Yeah, that was good. Excellent. About $35.
Champagne Rosé Premier Cru de Vve Fourny et Fils Vertus Brut — to give its full name — is my new favorite Champagne. I had a sip at a tasting, and when I left I went promptly to a store and bought a bottle. Fourny is a small, family-owned house, founded in 1856, in the village of Vertus; its products are made only from Premier Cru vineyards. The color is very pale sunset peach with a shimmering core of lightly tarnished silver; the bubbles surge upward in a constant tempest of glinting froth. Except for a dollop of chardonnay, this is all pinot noir. The typical elements of a brut rosé Champagne are present — strawberry, dried red currants, orange zest — but packed with roasted lemon, cloves, lilac, crystallized ginger and spiced quince jam, this attractive array subdued, however, to a higher purpose of purity, intensity and elegance. You know how it is with some wines, of whatever type –still, sparkling; red, white — they just flat-out look and smell and feel great, exuding impeccable tone, integrity and confidence, as well as pleasure and delight; that’s the case with this. Excellent. I paid about $55; prices on the Internet range from about $45 to $60.

Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Cal.
Whoa, My Readers, I just realized that this is the last post of 2010. Please have a safe, happy and festive New Year’s Eve and don’t forget to fire up the pot for your blackeyed peas, hog jowl and turnip greens tomorrow.

It’s nice to know that after writing about wine for 26 years I can still be surprised. Readers, I had never heard of Crémant de Bordeaux, or I passed right over it in my reading, so I jumped at the chance to try three examples when they were offered to me as samples.

Clive Coates, in his valuable An Encyclopedia of the Wines and Domaines of France (University of California Press, 2000), mentions Crémant de Bordeaux briefly, saying, “There is only a small quantity … and it is rarely seen.” In his comprehensive World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine (Wine Appreciation Guild, revised and updated edition, 2003), Tom Stevenson dismisses Crémant de Bordeaux thus: ” … there is nothing special about Bordeaux bubbly. For a region that is supposed to have the best climate in the world for winemaking, Bordeaux performs very poorly when it comes to sparkling wines.” One problem, he says, is the belief that “the Crémant appellation makes a useful dumping ground for unripe or poor quality grapes.” All in all, the stuff “is a modest and inoffensive fizz at best.”

Well, take that, Crémant de Bordeaux! This wine was once called Bordeaux Mousseaux (“moo-so”), as Steven Spurrier notes in The Concise Guide to French Country Wines (Perigree Books, 1983) — one of the first books about wine that I studied assiduously — but that designation was replaced by Crémant de Bordeaux in 1990, with Bordeaux Mousseaux being phased out by 1995.

Perhaps matters have improved. The trio of wines I tried were not, I’ll admit, terrifically compelling (well, one was), but they were certainly better than mere curiosities, ranging in quality from more than O.K. to (I suppose improbably) excellent. The prices are quite reasonable.

First, the Jaillance Brut Rosé, Crémant de Bordeaux, is a blend of 80 percent cabernet franc and 20 percent merlot. The color is rosy-strawberry-copper; whiffs of orange rind, dried currants and raspberries with a hint of ripe strawberry lead to a lively sparkling wine that delivers notes of ginger, pomander and spiced and macerated red currants in a dense, almost viscous package that starts a bit off-dry but firms up to clean, fresh dryness on the finish, aided by heaps of limestone minerality. Quite charming. Jaillance also produces other basic Bordeaux wines and a nifty Crémant de Bourgogne. Very Good. About $17.

Chateau de Lisennes Brut, Crémant de Bordeaux, is a blend of 50 percent merlot, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon and 20 percent cabernet franc. The property, in the Entre-Deux-Mers, between the rivers Garonne and Dordogne, dates back to the 18th Century. This is another charming, indeed almost elegant, Crémant de Bordeaux, that sports a pale gold color, a plethora of tiny bubbles, and a distinctive smoky, steely aura with a slight floral cast. The wine is crisp and vivacious, with spicy roasted lemon and lemon balm flavors heightened by orange zest and limestone supported by a pleasingly dense, almost chewy texture. Very Good+. About $17.

Third in this line-up is the Favory Brut, Crémant de Bordeaux, produced by Elizabeth and Armand Schuster Ballwil’s Chateau Montlau, on an estate where grapes were first cultivated in 1473. The blend is 65 percent semillon, 35 percent muscadelle. This is elegance personified, a steely, stony sparkler, bright, dry, crisp, clean, with traces of roasted lemon and lemon balm, a whiff of sea-salt and salt-marsh earthiness, and a seemingly vast field of limestone. It’s bracingly effervescent, high-toned and rather amazingly good. Excellent. About $16.50.

These wines are limited in production, limited in importation and, sadly, limited in availability, which seems to be mainly in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. Keep an eye out for these or any other Crémant de Bordeaux sparkling wines; the Favory Brut is especially Worth a Search.

While Iron Horse Vineyards produces a variety of still wines, the producer is better-known for its sparking wines, which seem to gain more character with each vintage. The winery was established in 1978 in Sonoma County’s Green Valley, which is surrounded by the Russian River Valley, by Barry and Audrey Sterling, who had acquired an old property where there had been a railroad stop; hence, Iron Horse.
The winery makes several styles of sparkling wine, all in the champagne method, of which I tasted an array recently. I’ll eventually get to the others, but for the fifth entry in this edition of “12 Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine” I want to mention the Iron Horse Brut Rosé 2005, Green Valley.

The color is fire-opal red with a tinge of strawberry and blue; it’s extraordinary and entrancing. Teeny gold flecks of bubbles spume upward in a constant tempest. A blend of 81 percent pinot noir and 19 perfect chardonnay, and made all in stainless steel, Iron Horse Brut Rosé 2005 offers scents of strawberry, raspberry and red currant with hints of blood orange, orange zest and peach, this panoply bolstered by a bready, biscuity quality and plentiful crushed stone elements. This is unusually substantial, dense and chewy for a sparkling wine from California, even as it’s exquisitely balanced by an ardent sense of delicacy, even of the evanescent, while lively acidity keeps the whole package electrified. Irresistible. 950 case production. 13.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $50.

A sample for review.

Fans of super-ripe, velvety, alcoholic cabernet- and merlot-based wines from California might have a difficult time understanding Chateau Bahans Haut-Brion 2001, a classically spare, lean, highly structured yet sensually appealing red wine that we drank with our usual Christmas Eve dinner of standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding, roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts in brown butter, followed by a selection of cheeses and Dow’s Trademark Reserve Porto. Yes, very English in the Old Sense.

Bahans Haut-Brion is the “second” wine of the celebrated Chateau Haut-Brion, the only red wine from Bordeaux’s Graves region admitted to the pantheon of the almost sacred 1855 Classification. Many chateaux in Bordeaux use the second wine concept to divert grapes that might not be of the highest quality into a wine that will be much less expensive (and less great) than the primary product but still reflect the character of the estate. Second wines have been around for a long time; Bahans Haut-Brion has been produced since 1907.

Chateau Haut-Brion is an old property, dating back to the mid 16th Century. English diarist Samuel Pepys was a fan, as was American President Thomas Jefferson. It has been owned since 1935 by the Dillon family, the only Bordeaux First Growth in American hands. The part of Graves where Chateau Haut-Brion stands, now encompassed by the busy suburbs of the city of Bordeaux, was designated Pessac-Leognan in 1987. The vineyards yield about 45 percent cabernet sauvignon, 37 percent merlot and 18 percent cabernet franc. With the 2007 vintage, Bahans Haut-Brion was renamed Le Clarence de Haut-Brion, after the American banker who bought the estate. For some period, Bahans Haut-Brions was sold as a non-vintage wine, a marvelous example of which I tasted in the late 1980s.

I decanted our Christmas Eve bottle of Chateau Bahans Haut-Brion 2001 an hour before dinner, not because of the possibility of sediment — there was none — but because a taste I had tried several weeks earlier indicated some hardness that needed a little airing to soften. By the time we sat down to eat, the wine seemed close to drinkable, though it continued to evolve as several hours passed. At first sniff, the wine offers notes of wheatmeal and walnut shell, cedar and tobacco and a tinge of dried spice and dried red and black currants. Gradually, as moments passed and we sipped and partook of perfectly rosy-rare slices of beef, Bahans Haut-Brion 2001 unfurled hints of violets and lavender, mocha and bitter chocolate, the latter seemingly wrapped around ripe black currants, black raspberries and plums. Even as it opened and became more approachable and enjoyable, though, the wine retained a sense of lithe sinewy muscularity and animation, based on an architecture of dry, dusty tannins, polished oak and profound acidity. The wine did not let us forget that while it was, after all, made from grapes, that fruit found its origin in dirt, subsoil and underlying strata, nor did it neglect, finally, the beguiling, vinous appeal that compelled us to return to the glass. 13 percent alcohol. Typical production of Bahans is 7,500 cases; production of Chateau Haut-Brion itself is about 15,000 cases. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. Prices on the Internet range, ludicrously, from about $40 to $70. I was fortunate enough to purchase two bottles at the lower end of that spread.

Imported by Diageo Chateau & Estates, New York.

Sparkling pinot noir from Piedmont?

This is a new product from Vigne Regali, founded as Bruzzone Cellars in 1860 in Strevi, a town in northeast Piedmont. The Mariani family, of Castello Banfi, in the Brunello di Montalcino region of Tuscany, purchased Bruzzone in 1979. The winery is best known for its enchanting sparkling red wine Rosa Regale, made from the brachetto grape.

The Vigne Regali Cuvée Aurora Rosé is made from pinot noir grapes grown in Piedmont’s Alta Langa region. This tantalizing sparkler is fashioned in the tradizionale classico or champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle, after which it rests for a two-year period of yeast contact followed by the traditional hand-riddling — gradually turning the bottles so that the neck is pointing down — and the final disgorgement, that is the expelling of the yeast residue.

This is an incredibly charming and elegant sparkling wine. The color is lightly tarnished copper over silver salmon scale; the foaming surge of tiny glinting bubbles is hypnotic. First one sniffs smoke, red raspberry and dried red currants; then come orange rind, a touch of lime sherbet, melon ball and a slight yeasty, bready element. The wine is crisp, dry, lively, clean and fresh, a tissue of delicacies that add up to a supple, engaging structure — close to pert yet almost creamy — buoyed by an increasingly prominent limestone minerality. The finish brings in hints of cloves and pomegranate and a smooth conjunction where limestone turns into damp shale; do I imagine a beguiling whiff of rose and lilac? No, it’s there. Completely delightful but not at all frivolous. 11.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $30.

Imported by Banfi Vintners, Old Brookville, N.Y. A sample for review.

Technically, and actually legally, the bubbly stuff that’s made in the Champagne region of north-central France is Champagne, and everything else is sparkling wine. The French government frowns upon other countries trespassing upon this sacred name, and the United States of America has signed a trade agreement with France that forbids the use of the name Champagne on bottles of sparkling wine made in this country. A few exceptions were made — lord knows why — for some wineries like Korbel that were grandfathered in.

Definitely the real thing is the Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut, a non-vintage blend of 60 percent pinot noir — pinot noir is the heart of the house of Bollinger — 25 percent chardonnay and 15 percent pinot meunier, a red grape seldom seen outside the Champagne region. Bollinger was founded in 1829; in 2008, Jerome Philipon became managing director, the first time since 1889 that the house was not run by a member of the family. Bollinger, one of the few independent houses in Champagne, also owns the Champagne house of Ayala, Maison Chanson in Burgundy, Langlois-Chateau in the Loire Valley and Delamain in Cognac. The estate is unusual in Champagne in that it ferments and ages its wine in oak barrels.

Bollinger became the supplier of Champagne to the Royal Family of Great Britain in 1884, so you know what will be poured in copious amounts at the nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton on April 29, 2011.

Bollinger Special Cuvée displays a radiant medium gold color and a dynamic whirlwind of tiny bubbles. It’s boldly toasty, with notes of acacia, roasted lemon and toffee apple over hints of roasted hazelnuts, quince jam and ginger. This is all about presence and substance, intensity and concentration, about character that verges on dignity. Bollinger Special Cuvée is quite dry, but round and generous and vivacious, richly endowed with spicy, slightly woody overtones and grand reserves of limestone-like minerality. The broad finish lasts and lasts. A great experience. 12 percent alcohol. 8,000 cases imported. Excellent. About $65.

Imported by Terlato Wines International, Lake Bluff, Ill. A sample for review.

A white and a red from Ponzi Vineyards, founded in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1970, which for the region makes the winery venerable indeed. Both closed with screw-caps. These wines were samples for review.

Well, this is a winsome thing. The Ponzi Vineyards Pinot Blanc 2009, Willamette Valley, is utterly fresh and clean, brisk and crisp — say that 10 times fast — with a beguiling bouquet of green apple, roasted lemon, quince and lime and overtones of jasmine and camellia. The texture is deft and pointed with pert acidity, yet that fleetness is balanced by a portion of moderate lushness that perhaps reflects 25 percent of the wine briefly aged in neutral — that is, several times used — oak barrels. Flavors of honeyed pears, a touched of spiced peach and a bit of melon feel ripe and rich, yet the wine is totally dry and finishes with a rush of limestone and grapefruit peel. Production was 1,038 cases. 13.7 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2012. Very Good+. The press material I received quoted a price of $15, but the winery’s website says $17. In any case, the wine represents Great Value.

The Ponzi Tavola Pinot Noir 2009, Willamette Valley, is an entry-level pinot from this producer, by which I mean that the wine is a blend of pinot noir grapes not only from seven of Ponzi’s vineyards but from other vineyards in the Willamette Valley’s Dundee Hills, Yamhill-Carlton and Eola Hills appellations. The focus, therefore, is not on a specific vineyard or area but on providing a wine characterized by a broad notion of regional and varietal quality. From that standpoint, the Ponzi Tavola 2009 succeeds admirably. This is a lovely, smooth, silky pinot noir, whose 11 months in French oak (25 percent new barrels) deliver a supple texture and subtly spicy elements. The color is a radiant medium ruby; smoky and slightly macerated black cherries are permeated by touches of rhubarb and cola, with hints of cloves and sandalwood. Black cherry and red currant flavors offer nuances of the typical Willamette Valley briery-brambly nature, while the finish cements the wine’s essential balance and integration with a final fillip of oak. Seductively drinkable with a slight edge of tannic austerity around the circumference. Terrific with roasted chicken. Production was 6,423 cases. 13.7 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2012. Excellent. About $25.

We drank the Lucien Albrecht Brut Rosé, Crémant d’Alsace, with yesterday’s Christmas lunch: country ham and eggs, grit, biscuits and red-eye gravy. Not the fare of Alsace, perhaps, but appropriate for the American South and the traditional Christmas meal in the FK/LL household. Made in the “champagne method” of second fermentation in the bottle — thus producing the all-important bubbles in the bottle in which it will be sold — the product represents a regional interpretation of a sparkling wine made completely from pinot noir grapes. The Albrecht family has been growing grapes and making wine in Alsace in an unbroken line since 1425, though the company was founded in 1698; the cellar dates to 1772 and holds huge barrels that are 175 years old and more.

Sporting a pale copper-sunset color, the Lucien Albrecht Brut Rosé, Crémant d’Alsace, seems at first to embody the essence of fresh, macerated strawberries. Then, no, it must be the influence of dried red currants. But wait, is it not dominated by ripe peaches with an undertow of melon? These attractive and tasty notes flow together seamlessly in lovely appeal, bolstered by considerable minerality in the limestone-damp shale range and by assertive acidity that both stimulates and quenches thirst, keeping the wine crisp and lively, though the texture is more silken than sprightly. Exquisitely charming, and capable of not only lubricating the meal but cutting through some of its richness and the bracing saltiness of the excellent country ham. 12 percent alcohol. Very Good+. Prices range from $16 to $20.

Pasternak Wine Imports, Harrison, N.Y. A sample for review.

Let’s launch the Fourth Annual “12 Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine” — my favorite writing that I do all year — with the Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs Brut 2007, North Coast. Schramsberg first made a blanc de blancs (“white of whites”) sparkling wine in 1965. The composition is 100 percent chardonnay. The North Coast designation exists in order to give producers the leeway to use grapes from several counties and regions north of San Francisco. For the 2007 rendition, winemaker Hugh Davies drew from vineyards in Napa County (59%), Sonoma County (31%), Mendocino (7%) and Marin (3%). A sample for review.

Oh, this is one cool, sleek blond of a blanc de blancs with tons of character under its cool, sleek kiss of limestone and shale and its heedless festive froth of tiny silver bubbles. The bouquet is buoyant with yeast, freshly baked biscuits and toasted hazelnuts, all of which unfold to reveal hints of roasted lemon and lemon balm, quince, ginger and orange zest, atop a bed of scintillating minerality. This sparkling wine is quite dry, quite crisp and lively, a model of elegance and finesse, rounded yet nervy, a touch agitated, with slightly nutty citrus flavors permeated by limestone and, as it nears the finish, an increasingly bright, spicy quality. One would not regret drinking this every day. 12.7 percent alcohol. Production was 20,550 cases, so there’s more than enough to go around. Excellent. About $36.

Once again, I will try not to repeat sparkling wines and products from Champagne that I have used in the three previous editions of this series. Perhaps the same producer, occasionally, but not the same wine.

Tomorrow, for the 2nd Day of Christmas, we look to a region in northeastern France.

The Paul-Marie et Fils “devant la porte” Grande Champagne Cognac is a one-of-a-kind, unfined and unfiltered, cask-strength cognac that will blow away lovers of distilled spirits, especially of the kind that demand lingering over for an hour or so. The story is as interesting as the product. Nicholas Palazzi, whose parents own small estates in Bordeaux, has deep connections, through his grandfather, with the Cognac region. Seeking out an old friend of his grandfather, someone from whom he could learn all the intricacies and nuances of cognac, Palazzi found himself, a few years ago, in the dark, redolent cellars of ancient properties, cellars that held barrels of cognacs that went back generations. After tasting many of these, Palazzi chose one barrel to bottle, a barrel “in front of a door” — devant la porte — that had been distilled in 1951. He bottled the spirit in August 2009 and since then has been basically hand-selling it all over the world, though with only 257 bottles in existence it’s obviously pretty damned rare. The alcohol content is 51 percent, yes, 102 proof.

Palazzi sent me a small sample of Paul-Marie et Fils “devant la porte” Grande Champagne Cognac, which I took my time about opening, but finally broke down. The color is medium copper-amber with a pale, almost transparent rim. The first impression is of alcoholic power buried inside woody spices — sandalwood, cloves, allspice — with a touch of burnt orange and bitter chocolate. Slowly, traces of toffee, caramel and dusty leather emerge. Then, at least in my experience, the cognac shuts down for 20 or 30 minutes, perhaps gathering its forces for the real display, because a little time leads to a blossoming of pear and fig pudding, spice cake and toasted coconut and a reassertion of the caramel, toffee, almond brittle elements. There’s a touch of something slightly bitter in reserve, and yet sweet, too, a woody sense of rigor and strength somewhat belied by the cognac’s utter smoothness and mellowness as it flows powerfully across the tongue and palate, somehow achingly dry yet honeyed simultaneously. Exceptional. About $600 (a bottle).

I told LL that I was writing this “last minute gift” post and she said, “Like, very very really last minute,” but, you know, it’s about 3 in New York and hours earlier on the West Coast. Plenty of time! Get to it! Make someone happy!

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