January 2011

Wine writers all over the country are receiving samples in a new format called TASTE, which stands for “Total Anaerobic Sample Transfer Environment.” Simply stated, this means that tiny samples of wine are drawn from full, 750-milliliter bottles and transferred into cute little 50-milliliter bottles in a “sealed, zero-oxygen chamber.” The idea is that this “mini-sample,” as it were, provides an utterly fresh, clean, uncontaminated version of the wine submitted for review. The mini-bottles are closed with itsy-bitsy screw-caps, and the samples are accompanied by a recommended “taste-by” date.

I received a “Flock Box” sampler of six wines from Blackbird Vineyards, a high-class outfit in the Oak Knoll District of the Napa Valley. Blackbird is owned by Michael Polenske, an investment manager-philanthropist-gallery and restaurant owning-“life aesthetic” sort of person who, fortunately, happens to turn out very impressive wine, though a great deal of credit must be given to actual winemaker Aaron Potts. The Flock Box is aimed at people who want to purchase wines from Blackbird without committing to buying full bottles untasted or perhaps only read about. This device is a boon, because the Blackbird wines are limited in quantity and they’re not cheap. On the other hand, there’s a distinct scent of exclusivity about the whole enterprise; as the winery’s website states:

Blackbird wines are available in limited quantities to private clients and the finer restaurants and resorts throughout the world. If you are not on our private client list and desire to receive an allocation, we invite you to Join the List, to receive a unique Username and password, which will enable you to immediately purchase an allocation from our portfolio of wines.

These brief reviews, therefore, are for those who possess the fiduciary prowess and the inclination to participate in such exclusionary rigmarol or who happen to find themselves looking at a wine list in a finer restaurant or resort throughout the world. The problem with the small-format bottles is that they preclude saving some wine to try the next day or tasting with a meal. After all, 50 mls equals 1.69 fluid ounces, providing, indeed, a few sips.

While all six of these wines contain some portion of cabernet sauvignon grapes, the emphasis in most of them is on merlot and cabernet franc, so the ideal, the model, would be Pomerol or St.-Emilion, those Right Bank communes of Bordeaux where merlot and cabernet franc grown so well. All of these wines carry a Napa Valley designation, though they differ in marked degree from over-ripe, super-oaky, high alcohol cabernets turned out by too many produces. The Blackbird red wines display, instead, admirable restraint and balance.
Blackbird Arriviste Rosé 2009. 58 percent merlot, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon 12 percent cabernet franc. Color is light copper-salmon with peach undertones; peach and strawberry in the nose, a rosé of stones and bones, classically lean but slightly plump and creamy at the center, thirst-quenching acidity for backbone, lovely texture. 610 cases. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $24.
Blackbird Arise 2008. Merlot 42 percent, cabernet sauvignon 38 percent, cabernet franc 20 percent. Great character and presence; smooth, sapid, savory; black and red currants, black cherry, thyme, cedar, briers and brambles, dusty plums, lavender and violets: irresistible bouquet; dense and chewy, lively and vital, grainy, granite-laced tannins, fully integrated oak; a few minutes bring hints of mint and iodine; powerful and earthy but refreshing. The most accessible for Blackbird’s red wines. 1,570 cases. 14.7 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $50.
Blackbird Paramour 2007. Merlot 50 percent, cabernet franc 45 percent, cabernet sauvignon 5 percent. A burst of bitter chocolate, lavender, cloves, thyme and cedar, mocha, deeply spicy and macerated black currants, black raspberry and the richness of cassis; furry, velvety tannins, you could wear them; the rigor of walnut shell and dried porcini, smoke, ask, penetrating granite-like minerality. Great detail and dimension. 534 cases. Didn’t get the alcohol, sorry. Drink 2013 or ’14 through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. About $90.
Blackbird Contrarian 2007. Cabernet franc 46 percent, merlot 34 percent, cabernet sauvignon 20 percent. Structure right up front; dried porcini, dusty graphite and granite, wheatmeal, cedar, thyme, tobacco; dried spices and flowers, some earthy funk but clean and vigorous; red and black currants; briers, brambles, moss; definitely the foundation and frame to age from 2014 or ’15 through 2020 to ’24. 538 cases. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $90.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Blackbird Illustration 2007. Merlot 70 percent, cabernet franc 20 percent, malbec 5 percent. Sleek, polished, elegant, honed; basalt and granite; dense, intense, concentrated; leather, smoke; ripe, spiced and macerated black currants and plums; great definition, as in slim, lithe, supple and muscled, the weight and substance subdued to a sense of generosity, refinement and mobility. This is, frankly, a wonderful wine, though it could use some age, say from 2014 or ’15 through 2021 to ’24. Production was 1,324 cases. Excellent. About $90.
Blackbird Illustration 2006. 86 percent merlot, 11 percent cabernet franc, 3 pecent cabernet sauvignon. Immediately seductive, with potpourri, lavender and licorice, cloves, dried red and black fruit with ripe black currants and cherries carrying an infusion of dusty granite and slate; this smolders in the glass; smooth and mellow, balanced and integrated, dense and chewy with some plush, show-offy tannins, yet so elegant, so sophisticated that it’s completely entrancing. Drink now through 2016 or ’18. Production was 1,195 cases. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $90.

Following a godlike whim, I sprang for a bottle of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut 1998 for New Year’s Eve, and while you may call be a creature touched by the wing of madness, I’m not sorry, nor is LL. We reveled in the damned stuff!

Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne is one of the region’s legendary luxury products, along with such hallowed tête de cuvée or grand marque Champagnes as Moët et Chandon’s Dom Perignon; Louis Roederer Cristal; Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill; Krug Clos de Mesnil; Veuve Cliquot La Grande Dame; Perrier-Jouët Fleur de Champagne; Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle “La Cuvée”; Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises; and, perhaps in a class by itself, Salon. These rare and costly bottles of bubbly are the stuff of dreams and well-tended expense accounts, beloved by hip-hop artists and soccer idols, tsars and potentates.

What makes a truly great Champagne great are the same factors that make any wine truly great: the most impressive character, tone and presence derived from exceptional vineyards and wedded to impeccable craftsmanship. Sounds easy!

Taittinger traces its origin to 1743 and founder Jacques Fourneaux. Almost 200 years later, that is in 1932, the house was acquired by Pierre Taittinger, who was also able, because of the hard times, to buy a number of important vineyards, as well as the 13th Century chateau of the Comtes de Champagne. Taittinger first produced its flagship Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut, named for Thibaut IV whose device appears on the label and neck, from the vintage of 1952. It is made completely from chardonnay grapes, primarily from Grand Cru vineyards, though not all owned by the company. The Champagnes of Taittinger are more notable for finesse and elegance than for power and substance, yet while Comtes de Champagne evokes that principle it expands on those qualities into awesome realms of intensity, purity and dimension.

Tom Stevenson, in World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine (Wine Appreciation Guild, revised and updated edition, 2003), says, ” … it is a crime to drink this wine before its tenth birthday; 15 to 20 years is the optimum window to show both freshness and complexity, and the best vintages keep improving for at least 30 years.” Vintage 1998 was excellent in Champagne, though perhaps not spectacular like 1996. At least by popping the cork after 12 years we weren’t committing infanticide.

Our bottle of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut 1998 — which we accompanied with 1.06 ounces of Royal Osetra caviar from Petrossian in New York on lightly toasted slices of baguette — opened almost shyly. At 12 years old, the color was still pale gold but radiant, while the surge of tiny, foaming bubbles was shamelessly prolific and entrancing. The bouquet, however, took a few moments to gently unfurl its seductive aromas of apple and pear, roasted lemon and acacia flower, all ensconced in an immense manifestation of cinnamon toast and freshly baked biscuits slathered with honey; in three words — To Die For. All right, I used the word “honey,” though my implication is not sweetness but richness, and richness that’s fairly tightly focused, rather than broad and general, since this is a Champagne composed of myriad tissues of delicacies woven into a fabric that wonderfully balances — oops, I automatically switched tenses for a sense of immediacy! — the ephemeral and evanescent and elegant with a dynamic structure of staggering acidity and monumental (but ever so lacy) limestone. So in body and flavor that feeling and form of balance toes the line from beginning to end: bracing as a sea-breeze over a salt marsh yet succulent as hazelnut cream and warm brioche; earthy as a crushed walnut yet dainty as a petal of orange blossom. My point is the whatever profundities Comtes de Champagne 1998 embodies, it remains the epitome of grace and refinement and high style. Drink now through 2018 to ’20. Exceptional.

As to price, I paid $179, but around the country Comtes de Champagne 1998 can be found as low as $150 and as towering as $300. Seen in those terms, I sort of got a bargain.

Imported by Kobrand Corp., New York.

San Benito County, bordering Monterey County on the east, is home to four American Viticultural Areas, two of which — Paicines and Cienega Valley — were instigated by Almedan, which was once the major, if not only, wine presence in the region. Though Cienega has a vineyard history that goes back to the 1850s, most of the valley’s vines were planted in the late 1990s. Taking advantage of that tradition were Cort, Phyllis and John Blackburn, who purchased an old property in 1989 for their Pietra Santa Winery. The winemaker is Alessio Carli.

Featured today is this knock-out Pietra Santa Pinot Grigio 2009, Cienega Valley, an all stainless steel white wine that scintillates with vim, verve and vivacity. The color is a surprising medium gold, surprising because so many pinot grigios are about as colorless as water. The wine is incredibly clean and fresh and appealing, with attractive aromas of roasted lemon and spiced pear, dried thyme, almond blossom and dusty acacia. In the mouth, vivid acidity and a keen limestone edge keep this pinot grigio crisp and lively; these essential elements are nicely balanced by flavors of pear, peach and tangerine drawn out finely to a finish enlivened by a touch of bracing grapefruit bitterness. Most of the pinot grigio wines that come from northeast Italy cannot boast of this character. Production was 1,285 cases. Alcohol, well, the label says 14.1 and the material I was sent states 13.7, so split the difference and say, um, 13.9. Excellent. About $18, Great Quality for the Price.

A sample for review.

All right, I know that this is the list My Readers most want to see, a roster of terrific and affordable wines. No hierarchy; the order is chronological as the wines appeared on the blog. Prices range from $8 to $20, and notice that most of these inexpensive wines were rated Excellent. The value quotient on this list is unimpeachable.

<>Chateau des Vaults Brut Sauvage, Crémant de Loire, Savennières, Loire Valley, France. A sparkling wine composed of 85 percent chenin blanc and 25 percent cabernet franc. Excellent. About $18. (LDM Wine Imports)

<>Morgan Winery Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Monterey County. Excellent. About $15.

<>Morgan Winery Cotes du Crow’s 2008, Monterey County. Syrah 55 percent, grenache 45 percent. Excellent. About $16.

<>Dry Creek Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $16.

<>Clos de los Siete 2008, Mendoza, Argentina. Malbec (56%), merlot (21%), syrah (11%), cabernet sauvignon (10%), petit verdot (2%). Excellent. About $19. (Dourthe USA, Manhasset, N.Y.)

<>Plantagenet Riesling 2008, Great Southern, Australia. Excellent. About $20. (Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, Cal.)

<>Gainey Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County. 1,450 cases. Excellent. About $15. (Also the Gainey Sauvignon Blanc 2009 rates Excellent and sells for $14; production was 2,300 cases.)

<>Girard Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $16.

<>Oveja Negra Reserve Sauvignon Blanc Carmenère 2009, Maule Valley, Chile. Very Good+. About $12. (Vini Wine & Spirits, Coral Sp[rings, Fla.)

<>Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages 2009, Beaujolais, France. Very Good+. $10-$12. (W.J. Deutsch & Sons, Harrison, N.Y.)

<>Graham Beck Gamekeeper’s Reserve Chenin Blanc 2008, Coastal Region, South Africa. Excellent. About $16. (Graham Beck Wines, San Francisco)

<>La TrinQuée Juliènas 2009, Les Vins de Georges Duboeuf, Beaujolais, France. Excellent. About $16. (W.J. Deutsch & Sons, New York)

<>Llai Llai Pinot Noir 2008, Bio Bio Valley, Chile. Very Good+. About $13. (W.J. Deutsch & Sons, New York)

<>Prieler Johanneshöle Blaufränkisch 2007, Burgenland, Austria. Excellent. About $19-$20. (Terry Theise Selections for Michael Skurnik Wines, Syossett, N.Y.)

<>Bodegas Aragonesas Coto de Hayas Garnacha Syrah 2009, Campo de Borja, Spain. Very Good+. About $8. (Scoperta Importing Co., Cleveland Heights, Ohio)

<>Bodegas Agustin Cabero Unus Old Vine Macabeo 2009, Calatayud, Spain. Very Good+. About $9. Scoperta Importing Co., Cleveland Heights, Ohio)

<>X Winery Red X 2008, North Coast. A provocative blend of 55 percent syrah, 23 percent tempranillo, 14 percent grenache and 8 percent zinfandel. Very Good+. About $15.

<>Ventisquero Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Casablanca, Chile. Excellent. About $13. (Austral Wines, Atlanta)

<>Bastianich Adriatico Friulano 2009, Colli Orientali del Friuli, Italy. Excellent. About $15. (Dark Star Imports, Neww York)

<>Frisk Prickly 2009, Alpine Valley, Victoria, Australia. 83 percent riesling, 17 percent muscat of Alexandria. Very Good+. About $10. (Old Bridge Cellars, Napa Cal.)

<>Calcu Red Wine 2008, Colchagua, Chile. 45 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent carmenère, 15 percent each cabernet franc and petit verdot. Very Good+. About $12. (Global Vineyard Importers, Berkeley, Cal.)

<>Alma Negra Bonarda 2007, Mendoza, Argentina. Excellent. About $20. (Winebow, New York)

<>Carrefour Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $18.

<>Joel Gott Riesling 2009, Columbia Valley, Washington. Very Good+. About $12.

<>Niner Estate Syrah 2006, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara County. Excellent. About $20.

What could be more straightforward than that? Not that all lists aren’t arbitrary in some degree, but after going through all the posts from 2010 on this blog several times and doing some cogitating and sighing and reluctant winnowing, here they are, The 50 Best Wines of 2010, as experienced by me and written about last year. Wines that I tasted in 2010 but haven’t written about yet will not show up on this list, nor will older vintages that I was lucky enough to taste, which I do damned little enough anyway. The order is wines I rated Exceptional, alphabetically, followed by wines I rated Excellent, alphabetically. Where I think such factors might be helpful, I list percentages of grapes and, for limited edition wines, the case production, if I know it. Prices begin at about $25 and go up to $200, with most, however, in the $30s, $40s and $50s.
<>Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Sonoma Valley. Richard Arrowood’s new label. 996 cases. Exceptional. About $80.

<>Catena Alta Adrianna Chardonnay 2008, Mendoza, Argentina. Exceptional. About $35. (Winebow, New York)

<>Joseph Drouhin Chablis-Vaudésir Grand Cru 2007, Chablis, France. 130 six-bottle cases imported. Exceptional. About $72. (Dreydus, Ashby & Sons, New York)

<>Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili 2007, Piedmont, Italy. Exceptional. About $150, though prices around the country range up to $225. (Winebow, New York)

<>Vincent Girardin Corton Renardes Grand Cru Vieilles Vignes 2007, Burgundy, France. Exceptional. About $70. (Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Ala.)

<>Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 2008, Clare Valley, Australia. Exceptional. About $38. (USA Wine West, Sausalito, Cal., for The Australian Premium Wine Collection)

<>Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard Syrah 2007, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 75 cases. Exceptional. About $40.

<>Nickel & Nickel Darien Vineyard Syrah 2007, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 974 cases. Exceptional. About $48.

<>Joseph Phelps Sauvignon Blanc 2008, St. Helena, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $32.

<>Phifer Pavitt Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley. 275 cases. Exceptional. About $75.

<>Rochioli Estate Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 1,200 cases. Exceptional. About $60.

<>Tudal Family Winery Clift Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley. 490 cases. Exceptional. About $40.
<>Alma Negra Misterio 2007, Mendoza, Argentina. The red grapes in this blend are never revealed, but count on malbec, cabernet franc and bonarda. Excellent. About $30-$33. (Winbow, New York)

<>Benovia Bella Una Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 195 cases. Excellent. About $58.

<>Francois Billion Grand Cru Cuvée de Reserve Brut Cépage Chardonnay (nonvintage), Champagne, France. Excellent. About $60. (William-Harrison Imports, Manassas, Va.)

<>Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut, Champagne, France. Excellent. About $65. (Terlato Wines International, Lake Bluff, Ill.)

<>Brovia Sorí del Drago Barbera d’Asti 2007, Piedmont, Italy. Excellent. $20-$28. (Neal Rosenthal, New York)

<>Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $35.

<>Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos de Mouches (blanc) 2007, Burgundy, France. 600 cases imported. Excellent. $100-$110. (Dreyfus, Ashby & Sons, New York)

<>Easton Old Vines Zinfandel 2006, Fiddletown, Amador County. “Old Vines” meaning back to 1865. Excellent. About $28.

<>Egly-Ouriet Brut “Les Vignes de Vrigny” (nonvintage). Champagne, France. Made, unusually, from all pinot meunier grapes. Excellent. About $70. (North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, Cal.)

<>En Route “Les Pommiers” Pinot Noir 2008, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 1,993 cases. Excellent. About $50.

<>Bodegas Fariña Gran Dama de Toro 2004, Toro, Spain. Tempranillo with six percent garnacha. Excellent. About $45. (Specialty Cellars, Santa Fe Springs, Cal.)

<>Domaine Ferret Pouilly-Fuisse 2008, Burgundy, France. Excellent. About $30. (Kobrand, New York)

<>Champagne Rosé Premier Cru de Veuve Fourny Brut (nonvintage), Champagne, France. Pinot noir with a dollop of chardonnay. Excellent. About $55. (Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Cal.)

<>Foursight Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 407 cases. Excellent. About $46.

<>Marchesi di Gresy Martinenga Barbaresco 2006, Piedmont, Italy. Excellent. $45-$55. (Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Cal.)

<>Grgich Hills Estate Zinfandel 2007, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $35.

<>Haton et Fils “Cuvée Rene Haton” Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut (nonvintage), Champagne, France. Excellent. About $62. (William-Harrison Imports, Manassas, Va.)

<>Heller Estate Pinot Noir 2007, Carmel Valley, Monterey County. 154 cases. Excellent. About $50.

<>Domaine Huet Brut Vouvray Petillant 2002, Loire Valley, France. Excellent. About $30-$35. (Robert Chadderdon Selections, New York)

<>Iron Horse Brut Rosé 2005, Green Valley, Sonoma County. 81 percent pinot noir/19 percent chardonnay. 950 cases. Excellent. About $50.

<>Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. With 19.5 percent merlot, 4.5 percent petit verdot, 1 percent malbec. Excellent. About $52.

<>Kruger-Rumf Munsterer Rheinberg Riesling Kabinett 2008, Nahe, Germany. Excellent. About $22-$25. (Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, New York.)

<>Margerum Rosé 2009, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County. 100 cases. Excellent. About $21.

<>Mendel Semillon 2009, Mendoza, Argentina, Excellent. About $25. (Vine Connection, Sausalito, Cal.)

<>Misty Oaks Jones Road Cabernet Franc 2008, Umpqua Valley, Oregon. 75 cases. Excellent. About $28.

<>Oakville Ranch Robert’s Blend Cabernet Franc 2005, Napa Valley. With 10 percent cabernet sauvignon. 393 six-bottle cases. Excellent. About $90.

<>Joseph Phelps Insignia 2006, Napa Valley. Excellent. about $200.

<>Renaissance Late Harvest Riesling 1992, Sierra Foothills, North Yuba. Renaissance holds wines longer than any other winery; this dessert wine was released in 2008. Production was 364 cases of half-bottles. Excellent. About $35.

<>Renaissance Vin de Terroir Roussanne 2006, Sierra Foothills, North Yuba. 63 cases. Excellent. About $45.

<>Ridge Vineyards Three Valleys 2008, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $22.

<>St. Urban-Hof Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Piesling Auslese 2007, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. Excellent. About $55. (HB Wine Merchants, New York)

<>Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvée Pinot Noir 2007, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Excellent. About $42.

<>Talbott Logan Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Excellent. About $25.

<>Tardieu-Laurent Les Becs Fins 2008, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages, France. 50 percent syrah/50 percent grenache. 1,008 cases imported. Excellent. About $22. (Wilson-Daniels, St. Helena, Cal.)

<>Chateau Tour de Farges Vin Doux Natural 2006, Muscat de Lunel, France. Excellent. About $24. (Martine’s Wines, Novato, Cal.)

<>V. Sattui Black-Sears Vineyard Zinfandel 2007, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. 400 cases. Available at the winery or mail order. Excellent. About $40.

<>Yangarra Estate Mourvèdre 2008, McLaren Vale, Australia. 500 six-bottle cases. Excellent. About $29. (Sovereign Wine Imports, Santa Rosa, Cal.)
Coming Next: 25 Fantastic Wine Bargains.

Why “The 12 Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine”?

For fun, of course. Because I love Champagne and sparkling wine in all their categorical imperatives. Because I adore certain kinds of old traditions, such as the sequence of 12 days that leads from the solemnity of Christmas to the revels of Twelfth Night — that’s tonight –and the Epiphany, the day, according to ancient beliefs, on which the Three Kings arrived at Bethlehem. (The Kings, or Wise Men, were my favorite Christmas characters.) Of course end of the old year/beginning of the new year festivities extend back in history to the Roman Saturnalia and other ceremonies, riotous or not, that celebrate the glimmer of longer days and the foretaste of the coming Spring.

My favorite comedy by Shakespeare is Twelfth Night; or What You Will (to give the full title), a play, written indeed as a Twelfth Night entertainment, that in its witty and touching chronicle of love and loss, mistaken identity and discovery, foolishness and wisdom, pomposity and common sense, malice and miracle exactly captures the spirit of an occasion on which, in Medieval and Renaissance England, people disguised themselves and indulged in fits of merrymaking, feasting, drinking and dancing.

Perhaps the connection of Twelfth Night and sparkling wine is tenuous, but, after all, sparkling wine and Champagne are without doubt the most festive of beverages, and in honor of that conceit, I offer a roster of sparkling wines from around the world that would be appropriate for many, perhaps all, occasions.

These wines were samples for review. Three Wise Men images from mcleananddeakin.com

Lambrusco got a bad rep in the 1960s and ’70s with the ubiquitous “Chill a Cella” television ads. This essential wine of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, however, is bone-dry, not sweet and sticky, and made to match the rich, hearty indigenous cuisine. As a matter of fact, as I’m writing this entry about the Albinea Canali Ottocentonero, Lambrusco dell’Emilia, I’m sipping a glass of the deep purple/magenta/beet colored stuff with my quite savory and spicy cheese toast. Marked “Sept 2010” on the back label, the Ottocentonero is lightly sparkling, what in Italy is called frizzante (as opposed to the full-sparkling spumante), a sort of pink tickle-and-tease. A gamay-ish nose of black currants and black cherries contains hints of bubble gum and roses and surprisingly dusty shale-like minerality. There’s a lightness of being here that belies the dark intensity of the wine’s color and broad spicy component, yet it’s well-balanced by ripe black fruit flavors, titillating acidity and a touch of astringency on the finish. Charming but with an obsidian edge. The grapes are 50 percent lambrusco salamino, 40 percent lambrusco grasparossa and 10 percent lancelotta. Very Good+. About $16.

VB Imports, Old Brookville, N.Y.

The Col Vetoraz Valdobbiadene Prosecco Brut, marked 2009 on the back label, is a superior expression of the prosecco grape. The color is pale gold permeated by scads of tiny bubbles. Pop the cork, and you immediately smell apples, lemons and pears, followed by almond blossom, almond skin and a touch of orange zest. This is a very dry, crisp and steely prosecco whose exuberant effervescence makes for a lively and lovely quaff. Very Good+. About $16.

Imported by Montacastelli Selections, New York.

The package on the Segura Viudas Brut Reserve Heredad Cava is so ludicrous that’s it’s almost sweet. With its elaborate pewter emblem and carved pewter base, the bottle looks like the Great Seal of the Duchy of Flabbergastan. On the other hand, this is an interesting expression of the Cava style of Spain’s Alt Penedes region. Composed of 67 percent macabeo and 33 percent parellada, traditional grapes for Cava, the first impressions are of a beautiful medium gold color, an absolute froth of bubbles and a sense of buoyancy. This is bright, fruity and savory, with an intriguing (or slightly odd) muscat/riesling-like petrol aroma wreathed with lime, lemon curd and jasmine. In the mouth, this sparkling wine is dry and crisp, smoky and steely, with a sort of dried fruit compote element before a limestone-laced, austere finish. Very Good+. About $25.

Imported by Friexenet USA, Sonoma, Cal.

Australians have a fetish about sparkling shiraz, which I first tried in the Antipodes in 1998 and thought that it tasted like sparkling blood, not to put you off or anything. Indeed, there’s a meaty, beefy quality about sparkling shiraz that the Paringa Sparkling Shiraz 2008, South Australia, embodies handily. The color is, inevitably, very dark ruby-purple with a magenta rim; that darkness pretty much conceals the effervescence, though tiny purple bubbles gather at the wine’s rim in the glass, and of course you feel that liveliness and sort of brooding dynamism on your tongue. This is deep and rich, very spicy, packed with ripe, dusty, crepuscular black cherry and blackberry flavors that feel dense and fleshy; a few minutes in the glass bring up notes of walnuts and thyme. Still, the wine is neither heavy nor obvious, even managing to evince some delicacy of tone. It is very dry. No winsome aperitif sparkling wine, this demands food as large-framed as it is. Very Good+. About — ready? — $10, a Raving Bargain.

Imported by Quinessential, Napa, Cal.

The Lucien Albrecht Blanc de Blancs Brut, Cremant d’Alsace, made from 100 percent pinot blanc grapes, is completely delightful. The color is pale straw; a flurry of tiny bubbles surges up to the surface, like a reverse snow dome. Aromas of apple and pear permeated by cloves and a hint of spiced peach are deftly circumscribed by elements of limestone and steel. Flavors of baked apple and roasted lemon circulate in the mouth, almost caressed by a supple texture that’s fleetly enlivened (and nicely balanced) by acidity of staggering crispness and cool limestone-like minerality. The entire effect is of purity, intensity, electricity and, ultimately, lovely elegance in temper and tone. Great stuff. Excellent. About $25.

Pasternak Wine Imports, Harrison, N.Y. Image from redwhiteandfood.blogspot.com


Here’s another blanc de blancs, separated from Alsace by distance, style and grape variety. The Iron Horse Blanc de Blancs 2005, Green Valley, Sonoma County, is made from 100 percent chardonnay grapes, 35 percent of which go through barrel fermentation. The color is very pale shivery blond-gold; the surging gold-flecked bubbles are hypnotic. Yes, this evokes all the green apple and pear, limestone and steel one expects from a blanc de blancs, but adds flourishes of fresh biscuits and cookie dough, almond skin and almond blossom, with traces of roasted lemon and a distant waft of mango; sort of a thrilling bouquet. In the mouth, however, this sparkling wine is very dry, very crisp, very high-toned; a hint of roasted almonds and lightly buttered cinnamon toast bring a touch of winsomeness to the hauteur. I don’t mean the last sentence in a critical spirit; I love these Alpine sparkling wines and Champagnes and their aching sense of being above it all. Production was 1,550 cases. Excellent. About $40.

I see that though I posted the “10th Day of Christmas” late last night, my clever computer posted it for today, so we have two Days of Christmas on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2011. Let’s make the real 11th Day of Christmas a shout-out for Domaine Carneros, founded in California’s Carneros region, north of San Pablo Bay, in 1987 as a partnership between Champagne Taittinger and that venerable house’s American importer Kobrand. If you drive through Carneros up to Napa Valley, you can’t miss the winery’s splendid but, for the region, somewhat incongruous chateau, modeled after the Taittinger family’s 18th Century mansion in Champagne. Eileen Crane is the producer’s only winemaker. Naturally, these sparkling wines are made in the champagne method. The style here is light and vivacious, and the words “lovely” and “elegant” will show up often in these reviews.

We’ll look at three Domaine Carneros sparking wines. These were samples for review, a disclosure required by the FCC of bloggers but not print publications.

The Domaine Carneros Brut Rosé 2006 offers a limpid medium copper-salmon color with a patina of tarnished silver; a fountain of tiny bubbles whirls upward in a rush. First, you get strawberry and red currants and a hint of spiced peach borne on a stream of cool, fresh, steely limestone. In the mouth, this Brut Rose delivers lovely presence and texture, with exquisite balance between bracing crispness and warm, almost luxurious creaminess. Subtle flavors of red raspberry and pomegranate are bolstered by limestone and shale minerality that’s like the leading edge of a cliff, though a cliff — to extend a metaphor — adorned with tiny white flowers of a spare and almost astringent reticence. A model of decorum and exhilaration. Excellent. About $36.

The limited production Domaine Carneros Blanc de Noirs Brut 2006 is available only at the winery. The last time Eileen Crane made a blanc de noirs (“white from blacks”) was in 1991, so this was a rare occasion. The wine was made from 100 percent pinot noir grapes. The color is radiant pale gold, infused with an infinity of tiny silver-flecked bubbles. Freshly baked bread and biscuits, quince and pear with a hint of ginger characterize a beguiling bouquet packed with spice and limestone. Tremendously fresh, clean and bracing, this sparkling wine feels almost cloud-like in its lovely heft and presence, though it is scintillating with crisp acidity and a monumental mineral edge. Still, it remains deft, delicate and elegant, a finely tuned construct of delightful paradoxes. The finish is long, toasty and spicy, with a salt-marsh tang. A great achievement.
Domaine Carneros Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs Brut 2004 is pretty damned dreamy, all right. Made completely from chardonnay grapes, this beauty sports a very pale gold-platinum blond color and a teeming fountain of tiny bubbles. The bouquet offers seamless aromas of yeast, freshly baked biscuits, orange zest and almond blossom and some dried floral element, like dusty acacia; it takes a few minutes for the limestone element to seep upward and twine itself with the other elements, and then follows a note of lemon curd. Yeah, it’s sort of delirious stuff yet gentle and nuanced, just as in the mouth the principle tone is suppleness, almost soft lushness, wedded to brisk, even nervous acidity; the effect is close to blithe with crystalline purity and intensity. There comes a point when one no longer says, “Ah, yes, this sparkling wine from California is a good alternative to Champagne, if you can’t get the real stuff.” No, Le Rêve 2004 is just a great sparkling wine; such comparisons are belittling. Exceptional. About $85.

It’s a bit disconcerting to see marketing nicknames on the labels of a real Champagne made in the, you know, actual region of Champagne. Not that making and selling Champagne isn’t a business; of course marketing is called for, as in any other business. And of course there’s not a thing wrong with indicating the different types of Champagne you make with different colored capsules; that makes sense. To call the product by that color on the label, however, seems a trifle crass. I’m referring to the Heidsieck & Co. Monopole “Blue Top” Brut. One wonders if the marketing people behind this scheme hope that “Blue Top” will become a by-word, as in a guy sidles up to the bar and sings out, “Barkeep, pour me a slender flute of Blue Top!” And the bartender sings back, “Need a pop? Try Blue Top!” (My model is: “What’s the word? Thunderbird!”) Heidsieck Monopole also has a “Silver Top” (Brut Reserve), “Rose Top” (Brut Rosé), “Green Top” (Demi Sec), “Red Top” (Sec) and “Gold Top” (Vintage Brut).

Heidsieck & Co Monopole, Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck all trace their origins to Florens-Louis Heidsieck, who established the company in 1785. I won’t delve into the multi-tangled history of the three houses and how they became separated by reasons of birth and marriage and other familial and non-familial relationships. It’s sufficient to say that Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck are owned by Remy-Cointreau, while Heidsieck & Co. Monopole is owned by Vranken Pommery.

So, to the bottle in question.

I was skeptical, but gradually Heidsieck Monopole “Blue Top” Brut won me over. Pinot noir is the backbone of this house; the composition here is 70 percent pinot noir, 20 percent chardonnay and 10 percent pinot meunier. We’re not talking about utter refinement or elegance in this Champagne; rather, it makes its point by assertive substance and presence. The color is pale gold; seemingly billions of teeny-tiny bubbles course upward in a twisting fountain. The effect of “Blue Top” is very toasty and yeasty, and the bouquet offers notes of pears and roasted lemon, almond peel and almond blossom and a winsome note of honeysuckle and hazelnuts. Minerality comes right up behind, and in the mouth this crisp, dry Champagne practically balloons with crystalline acidity, rampant limestone and chalk and immense reserves of spice, as in spiced citrus flavors, spice cake and a final touch of grapefruit baked with brown sugar and cloves. No, this is not some shivery, silvery, ultra-blond sophisticate, but the sense of dynamism and earthiness that “Blue Top” conveys is definitely fun. Excellent. About $40 in my town but down-priced from $25 to $35 in cities all over our great nation.

Imported by Vranken Pommery America, New York. Tried once at a retailer’s tasting and once from a sample for review (not from the importer).

So, My Readers, here it is, Sunday afternoon, Jan. 2, 2011. It’s chilly but sunny in my neck o’ the woods. We had waffles for lunch; how decadent!

However, to the matter at hand.

The point of image you see to the right of this post is that each of these sparkling wines is made from the same combination of grapes, 58 percent chardonnay, 42 percent pinot noir. Why, then, the difference in color, one palest gold, the other pale copper? Because the palest gold one, the Graham Beck Brut, was made with the juice undergoing no skin contact with the pinot noir grapes, while the other, the Graham Beck Brut Rosé, was given enough skin contact to delicately color the juice. These sparkling wines are produced in the Western Cape region of South Africa.

The result is that the bouquet of the Graham Beck Brut is clean, fresh, steely, oceanic and invigorating; the bouquet of the Brut Rosé is filled with notes of lightly spiced and macerated strawberries and dried red currants, with hints of orange zest and toast. Give the Brut a few minutes, and it displays elements of roasted lemon and almond skin, with a hint of cloves and ginger. Both sparkling wines are spare, lean and elegant, though the Brut Rosé perhaps delivers a bit more body and heft. Both are quite dry, founded on crisp acidity that practically glitters and limestone-and-shale-like minerality. While neither offers fabulous detail and dimension, for the price they’re attractive, charming and certainly exhilarating. Very Good+ for each. About $15 to $18, Great Value.

Imported by Maritime Wine Trading Collective, San Francisco. Samples for review.

Yikes, only three most posts to go in this 2010/2011 edition of “Twelve Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine.”

I have often mentioned one of our favorite cold weather dishes, the Cod and Chorizo Stew with Leeks, Potatoes and Tomatoes. We probably make this twice a month during Fall and Winter. It’s a combination of ingredients and effects that never fails, but a couple of nights ago LL added a few fillips that turned it into perfection. To top that, we drank a wine that matched the dish flavor for flavor, spice for spice, a brief triumph of the synergy of comparison and contrast, of purpose and reflection.

Cod and Chorizo Stew is really a simple dish, but this time, because she was using a brand and type of chorizo that we had not bought before, LL added Spanish smoked paprika, which amped up the stew’s richness, smokiness and spicy appeal (and deepened the color of the sauce), and then, in the sort of intuitive flash of genius that makes her such a better cook than I, she quickly peeled a mandarin orange, segmented it and dropped the pieces into the gently simmering pot. Lord have mercy, what a difference these little touches made in the stew! A dish that we had unflaggingly enjoyed now became sublime.

For wine, I opened a bottle of the Colomé Torrontés 2010, from Argentina’s Valle Calchaqui vineyard area in the Salta region, way up northwest by the Bolivian border. Founded in 1831, the winery was acquired by The Hess Collection in 2001. The Colome vineyards occur at an astonishing 6,000 to 10,000 feet above sea-level. Winemaker is Thibaut Delmotte.

The Colomé Torrontés 2010 is lean and spare yet broadly floral and herbal; achingly dry yet juicy, almost luscious. Spiced peach and pear and roasted lemon segue into mango, with banners of jasmine and camellia waving free amid strains of orange rind, leafy fig and dusty apple and pineapple. This all sounds deliriously hedonistic, but the wine preserves an element of almost mysterious reticence, a muscat-like intensity and paradoxical sinewy quality, due to bracing acidity, clean-edged limestone-like minerality and a scintillating note of bitterness on the finish. Made all in stainless steel, from 30- to 60-year-old vines. 13.5 percent alcohol. 2,210 cases imported. I’m a fan of wines made from the torrontés grape, which tend to be simple, direct and refreshing, yet while this version does not overburden itself (or ourselves) with freighted importance, it’s probably the best example I have tasted, and it was close to thrilling with the Cod and Chorizo Stew. Because of its seamless amalgam of complexity and delicate airiness, I’ll go for an Excellent rating. About $15, representing Terrific Value.

Imported by The Hess Collection, Napa, Cal. A sample for review.

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