12 Days of Christmas


Today, or this eve, is Twelfth Night, the traditional 12th Day of Christmas that heralds Epiphany on January 6, the day that the Wise Men or the Magi arrived in Bethlehem after following the brilliant star in the west. We get the symbolism; first to pay homage to the baby Jesus were shepherds, and then came the kings. The 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany were marked in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, by celebration and revelry, not to mention burlesque and ribaldry, a sequence of disguise and exchanged identity — male and female, master and servant — not unlike the elements that Shakespeare employed in his romantic comedy Twelfth Night; or, What You Will, a play dominated by star-crossed relationships. In any case, we could use a few Wise Men around these days to work some wonders. The point is, really, that today means the conclusion of the 7th annual series, “The Twelve Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine,” and we’ll end with a flourish of three products, a Prosecco from northeast Italy ( Veneto), a sparkling wine from California and a Champagne from that fabled region in France. Enjoy! And Happy 2014….

Image from sfstl.com, the website of the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis.
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The mid-range sparkling wine from Adriano Adami is the Bosco di Gica Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore, composed of 95 to 97 percent glera grapes and 3 to 5 percent chardonnay. It’s a very pale gold hue, almost silver, and the bubbles glint like silver fireworks within. Let’s just say that this fresh, clean sparkling wine, even in its bracing steel and saline qualities, is delightful. There’s a note of green apple and apple peel, bare hints of roasted lemon and lemon balm, and a finish of limestone and almond skin. 11 percent alcohol. Great for parties and receptions. Very Good+. About $18.

Imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Calif. A sample for review.
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The Chandon Blanc de Noirs — white from black — carries a California designation, meaning that grapes wee selected from vineyards in
different parts of the state. It’s a blend of 91 percent pinot noir grapes, 6 percent chardonnay and 2 percent pinot meunier. The color is very pale gold enlivened by an enchanting and dynamic stream of tiny bubbles. This is a pert, tart sparkling wine, full-bodied and savory, almost balsamic in its depths, but highlighted by notes of red currants and lime peel. It displays lovely tone and presence and could almost be called viscous if its creaminess were not cut by crisp and incisive acidity; the finish reveals a touch of sweet red fruit ripeness. 13 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $22.

A sample for review.
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This is what I like in Champagne: A torrent of bubbles, a blizzard of steel; a softness of spiced pear and orange blossom; a strict regimen
of bright acidity and scintillating limestone minerality. The Delamotte Brut — 55 percent chardonnay, 35 percent pinot noir, 10 percent pinot meunier; 30 to 36 months on the lees — delivers those exhilarating qualities as well as fleeting notes of apple and grapefruit and hints of cinnamon toast and hazelnuts. Mainly though this is about elegance and austerity, fine bones, chiseled stones and impressive purity and intensity. 12 percent alcohol. It doesn’t say so on the label, but this is a Champagne derived from Grand Cru vinyards, so the price is also impressive. Excellent. About $45 to $50.

Imported by Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Ala. A sample for review.

Let’s travel back to Franciacorta in Lombardy for a fine example of the craftsmanship that can occur there. Our model is the Antica Fratta Essence Brut 2007, a blend of 90 percent chardonnay and 10 percent pinot noir grapes that spent three years en tirage, to use the French term meaning resting on the lees in bottle, and another six months in the cellar after disgorgement, the rather unpleasant word for the process of releasing the accumulated yeast from the bottle. Anyway, the color is pale straw-gold, and the bubbles form a miniature tempest of persistent effervescence. Not quite a true blanc de blancs, because of the 10 percent pinot noir, nonetheless Antica Fratta Essence Brut 2007 is light, delicate and supremely elegant, a highly refined sparkling wine that still does not stint on ripeness and flavor. Notes of roasted lemon and spiced pear are highlighted by lime peel and a hint of fresh bread, while a few moments in the glass bring in elements of limestone, flint and grapefruit rind. The texture is perfectly balanced between ample expansiveness and clean, bright acidity, lending the Antica Fratta Essence Brut 2007 a welcome sense of vibrancy and tension, all resolved in a lacy spice-and-mineral-infused finish. 13 percent alcohol. A favorite in our house. Drink through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $32.

Imported by Masciarelli Wine Co., Weymouth, Mass. A sample for review.

Domaine Chandon marked the first incursion into California by a Champagne company, that being Moët-Hennessey, which came under the ownership of Louis Vuitton in 1987. The land in Napa Valley, across Highway 29 from Yountville, was acquired in 1973, with the impressive winery opening in 1977. The sparking line range here, originally limited to three models, has expanded enormously and includes for the nonce a nonvintage — a better term would be multi-vintage — Chandon 40th Anniversary Cuvée Rosé, a Sonoma County blend of 50 percent chardonnay grapes, 42 percent pinot noir and 8 percent pinot meunier. The wine went into second fermentation en tirage — on the lees — in May 2007 and was disgorged in January 2013, so it spend five and a half years in the bottle. The color is radiant copper-salmon, enlivened by a fine spume of tiny spiraling bubbles. This is fresh and clean, yeasty and biscuity, and it melds notes of strawberries and raspberries with rose petals, lime peel and a hint of peach. In fact, make that spiced peach, because the Chandon 40th Anniversary Cuvée Rosé is quite spicy and macerated, and while it sports plenty of crisp and vibrant acidity and the essential limestone minerality, the texture is soft and winsome, and it caresses the palate and fills the mouth like creamy silk. Yes, this is a crowd-pleaser, but with a slightly serious backbone. 13 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Tom Tiburzi. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $40, at the winery or through its website.

A sample for review.

On New Year’s Eve, to accompany Royal Ossetra caviar from Petrossian, served plain on lightly toasted baguette, I opened the Champagne André Beaufort Grand Cru Brut Nature 2005, from a house in the Grand Cru village of Ambonnay that produces a total of about 2,500 cases annually. Winemaker Jacques Beaufort is, from what I understand, eccentric and reclusive, a devotee of biodynamic practices that gradually grew from organic methods undertaken after Beaufort fell ill, purportedly from contact with chemical pesticides and herbicides. He employs only natural yeast from the vineyard, and ages the wines as long as possible on the lees in the bottle. The domaine’s vineyards consist of 80 percent pinot noir grapes and 20 percent chardonnay. The sense of dedication to an ideal, even an obsession if that is not too strong a word, permeate the Champagne under review today.

The color is medium gold, the tiny bubbles steady, gentle, somehow expressive, and, in fact, the whole package here feels the opposite of the exuberant, scintillating Champagnes one often encounters; this seems thoughtful, studied, utterly harmonious. The first impression is of citrus fruit slightly roasted and slightly honeyed, though this is very dry, even austere in the farther reaches of the finish. (“Brut Nature” means that there was no added sugar in the dosage.) There’s a paradoxical note of apple skin, an element of chalk and seashell, and hints of grapefruit rind, lime peel and hazelnuts, then quince and candied ginger and a touch of cinnamon bread. André Beaufort Grand Cru Brut Nature 2005 is both rich and delicate, savory and elegant, bracing and ethereal; a saline streak highlights brisk acidity and leads to a conclusion woven of limestone minerality, clove-like spice and almost bitter grapefruit pith, altogether mildly, charmingly effervescent. 12 percent alcohol. A highly individual Champagne and one unlike any Champagne I have experienced. Excellent. I sprang for $130 locally — gasp! — but come on, it was for New Year’s Eve.

Imported by North Berkeley Wine, Berkeley, Calif.

Here’s a festive way to celebrate the advent of 2014, with the Laetitia Brut Rose 2009, from Arroyo Grande Valley, a small American Viticultural Area in San Luis Obispo County. A blend of 32 percent pinot noir and 68 percent chardonnay grapes, this sparkling wine spent three years in the bottle, resting on the lees to develop complexity. The color is very pale but radiant copper-onion skin, and the stream of tiny bubbles is robust and engaging. In fact, the Laetitia Brut Rose 2009 is robust in structure and liveliness, a fresh and attractive amalgam of strawberry and raspberry notes wreathed with orange zest, lime peel and an undertone of melon and sour cherry; limestone minerality provides foundation and tingling acidity forms a vibrant backbone. The long and resonant finish is packed with cloves, red currants and a hint of chalk, all enveloped in vital effervescence. 12.5 percent alcohol. Production was 1,571 cases. Drink through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $28.

Tasted at the winery on April 26, 2013; tasted subsequently as a sample for review.

If you’re hosting hordes of revelers tonight and wish for a tasty and inexpensive sparkling wine to lubricate the path toward “Auld Lang Syne,” you can’t go wrong with the Gran Sarao Cava Brut, a descending blend of 40 percent xarel-lo grapes, 30 percent macabeo, 20 percent parellada and 10 percent chardonnay. The color is medium gold, and the bubbles are finely threaded and active. Notes of green apple, lemon, lime peel and grapefruit are buoyed by delightful effervescence and crisp acidity, with an undertone of spiced and roasted lemon. It spends 12 to 15 months in the bottle on the lees, so it delivers a pleasing full-body for the price. Thoroughly charming. 11.5 percent alcohol. Very Good. Look for prices from $10 to $16, and buy a case.

A Steve Miles Selection, Denver, Colo.
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From an estate founded in 1824 comes the Klipfel Brut Cremant d’Alsace, a blend of chardonnay and pinot blanc grapes that offers a pale gold color and a steady, swirling array of tiny gleaming bubbles. I love this Cremant d’Alsace for its foxy muscat-like aromas of orange blossom, spiced pear, damp leaves and slightly over-ripe lychee; its — by contrast — steely backbone of scintillating limestone minerality and crisp, brisk acidity; its delectable spicy citrus flavors; and the lovely balance and integration of these elements. 12.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $16.

Imported by Wein-Bauer, Inc., Franklin Park, Ill. A sample for review.
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All right, let’s say that your New Year’s Eve gathering is more exclusive and intimate, perhaps a small dinner party. Try, in that case, one of my favorite sparkling wines — we’ve had it twice this year — the Argyle Knudsen Vineyard Julia Lee’s Block Blanc de Blancs Brut 2008, Dundee Hills, Oregon. From its shimmering pale gold color and constant confident upward flow of tiny bubbles, to its delicacy and elegance and, on the other hand, its authoritative expression of a grape — it’s 100 percent chardonnay — and a place, this sparkling wine exudes character and breeding. Meadowy aromas of jasmine and honeysuckle are entwined with notes of toasted hazelnuts, slightly roasted grapefruit, limestone and chalk; this is fresh, clean and ardently lively, but it gains body and power in the glass, adding a hint of caramel and toast, and it finishes with steely hauteur and touches of almond and grapefruit rind. 13 percent alcohol. Production was 883 cases. Drink through 2016 or ’18. Excellent. About $50.
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On the other hand, what if tonight’s celebration is just for two? Some caviar, a perfect little supper, a toast at midnight. Splurge on the Domaine Chandon Étoile Téte de Cuvée 2003, a world-class sparkling wine that’s a blend of 70 percent chardonnay grapes and 30 percent pinot noir, originating in Napa County (52 percent) and Sonoma County (48 percent). The color is pale platinum blond, and the bubbles surge in a headstrong froth. This sparkling wine is fresh, clean, racy and nervy; you feel its dynamic energy in every sniff and sip. Notes of roasted lemon, quince and crystallized ginger overlay elements of biscuits, almond skin, lime peel and limestone; a lovely creamy texture is balanced by vibrant acidity and lambent minerality, while a few moments in the glass bring in touches of smoke, lilac and chalk. A splendid marriage of elegance and power and one of California’s great sparkling wines. 13 percent alcohol. Production was 1,000 cases. Drink through 2018 to 2020. Exceptional. About $100.

A sample for review.
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I love blanc de blancs Champagne, made completely from chardonnay grapes — “blanc de blancs” means “white from whites” — for its elegance and ethereal nature, its tinselly decor and tensile strength, its taut nervosity built on intense minerality. One of the best I have tried recently is the nonvintage Delamotte Blanc de Blancs Brut, and I offer it today as the sixth entry in the current series of “Twelve Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine.” Holy cow, we’re halfway through the sequence! Time’s a-wastin’! Anyway, Champagne Delamotte was established in 1760 in the village of Mesnil-sur-Oger, what is now a prestigious area devoted solely to Grand Cru vineyards. Delamotte is owned by Champagne Laurent-Perrier, and as such is a sister house to Champagne Salon, one of the greatest, rarest and most expensive of all Champagnes. Our purpose, however, is to look at the more affordable and accessible Delamotte Blanc de Blancs Brut. The color is palest gold with undertones of tarnished silver; a storm of tiny bubbles races swirling to the surface. This is all smoke and steel, limestone and flint, but with notes of jasmine and acacia, spiced pear, lime peel and grapefruit and a chilly errant hint of mint and juniper. A few minutes in the glass bring up touches of biscuits, lightly buttered cinnamon toast, roasted lemon; for all the richness of its detail, this blanc de blancs is ethereal, evanescent, high-toned yet based on the essential vitality of crisp acidity and slightly earthy stoniness. As it’s said of the faces of the Hepburn girls — Katharine and Audrey — this Champagne has great bones. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. Prices around the country range from about $40 to $68 — yes, that’s quite a range — so be happy if you pay $50 to $55.

Imported by Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Ala. A sample for review.

My Readers can probably tell by the Italian words in the title of this post that we’re back in Italy for the Fifth Day of Christmas, specifically in Lombardy, where we find the sparkling wine region of Franciacorta, about halfway between the cities of Bergamo to the northwest and Brescia to the southeast. These products are made in the Champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle. Franciacorta was accorded the official status of DOCG — Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita — in 1995. The Montenisa estate has been in the hands of the Conti Maggi family since the late 16th Century. In 1999, the Maggi family entered an agreement with Marchesi Antinori of Tuscany to share in the operation of the vineyards. Montenisa Brut is composed of chardonnay and pinot bianco grapes with a touch of pinot noir. The grapes are fermented partly in stainless steel tanks and partly in oak barriques; after second fermentation, the wine rests on the lees for 30 months. The color is pale gold, and the fountain of bubbles forms a gratifying torrent in the glass. Montenisa Brut is fresh and clean with notes of apple and spiced pear and hints of yeasty bread and roasted lemon, lime peel and grapefruit. This is a zesty, vibrant, savory and botanical sparkling wine — I mean by botanical slightly minty and floral — with a prominent background of limestone and flint minerality for a lithe and elegant structure, though it does not stint on subtle ripeness and a sense of moderately mouth-filling lushness. 12.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $35.

Imported by Ste Michelle Wine Estates. A sample for review.

I would drink Champagne every day if I could afford it — or if importers would send me samples, I mean, come on! — and the Champagnes I love best are brut rosé and blanc de blancs. For the Fourth Day of Christmas, I offer a superb brut rosé, the Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut Rosé 2004. The trend now is to favor small family growers and champagne-makers — also called artisan or farmer Champagnes — over the large established houses, and it’s true that grower Champagne can deliver a sense of individuality and terroir-driven authenticity that the large houses sometimes gloss over. It’s also true, however, that with their sometimes vast supplies of reserve wines, their long-term contracts in excellent vineyards and their decades, if not centuries of experience and tradition, the major houses can turn out enviably great and highly desirable products of depth and complexity. Such a one is the Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut Rosé 2004, a blend of 45 percent pinot noir grapes, 31 percent chardonnay and 24 percent pinot meunier. The color is radiant coral that’s almost opalescent, and it’s energized by startlingly brisk and abundant effervescence; my thought was, “How can a fragile glass how these bubbles?” This is a generous and expansive brut rosé, layered with notes of cloves and orange zest, strawberries and raspberries, biscuits and toasted hazelnuts with a hint of tangerine and a sort of dusty peach. The pinot noir and pinot meunier lend a feeling of red wine graphite, almost of a subtly tannic character, while the chardonnay delivers subversive elements of limestone and grapefruit. This is, in other words, simultaneously substantial and ethereal, earthy and elegant, with an extended finish that’s chiseled and crystalline. 12.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $80.

Imported by Moët-Hennessey USA, New York. A sample for review.

So, on Christmas Day, we did a superior Prosecco, and yesterday assayed an excellent and genuine Champagne. Today, the Third Day of Christmas, we continue with the eclectic tendency and present an unusual vintage-dated Cava, that is to say, the well-known sparkling wine from the Penedés region of Spain, southwest of Barcelona in the province of Catalonia. The Juvé y Camps “Reserva de la Familia” Brut Nature Gran Reserve 2008 comes from an estate founded in 1796 by Joan Juvé Mir, though the working winery was not established until 1921, by Joan Juvé Baqués and his wife Teresa Camps Farré. As is the law in Cava production, these sparkling wines are made in the Champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle. The Juvé y Camps “Reserva de la Familia” Brut Nature Gran Reserve 2008 consists of the traditional macabeo, xarel-lo and parellada grapes with a dollop of chardonnay. The color is mild gold, enlivened by a vibrant surge of tiny bubbles; aromas of freshly-baked bread, toasted hazelnuts, roasted lemons and green tea are heightened by notes of acacia and almond skin, and the whole package resonates with a sort of sea-breeze/salt marsh fresh and bracing character. This sparkler is very dry, savory, deeply spicy, and though it’s quite lively with acidity and sprightly with tense citrus flavors, it grows more austere as the moments pass, becoming a touch acerb on the finish. I would say drink up, but try it for the unique experience. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. I paid $19, but prices around the country start around $15.

Imported by Winebow Inc., New York.

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