Chardonnay


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.

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.

Today is Boxing Day, so don’t forget to take all those mounds of Christmas present boxes out to the curb for the garbage trucks or for recycling.

Back on the “7th Day of Christmas” in 2010, which happened to be New Year’s Eve, I mentioned the Champagne Rosé Premier Cru de Veuve Fourny et Fils Vertus Brut, made by a small family-run house, founded in 1856, in the village of Vertus. This producer uses only grapes from sustainably-farmed Premier Cru vineyards. Today it’s the turn of one of that previous wine’s stablemates, the Veuve Fourny & Fils Grande Réserve Premier Cru Brut, a combination of 80 percent chardonnay grapes and 20 percent pinot noir that aged two-and-a-half years in bottle before release. Boy, this is a super attractive Champagne, both elegant and dynamic, just the way I like them. The color is shimmering pale gold, shot through by a splurge of tiny glancing bubbles. Notes of roasted lemon, grapefruit rind, toasted hazelnuts and cloves are highlighted by wood-smoke, ginger and quince and a hint of cinnamon toast. Lovely poise, tension and tone here, with the authority of brisk acidity and the dimension of chiseled limestone minerality, a dry, savory and saline Champagne that finishes with a tinge of mineral austerity. I could drink this every day. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. Prices around the country range from about $35 to $50; I paid in the upper reach of that scale.

Kermit Lynch Imports, Berkeley, Calif.


It took the insight of Argentine winemaker Nicolas Catena to understand that chardonnay vineyards could be planted at high altitudes and produce excellent grapes. From the Andean areas of Lujan de Cuyo and Tupungato, grape-growing regions of Mendoza, and family vineyards at heights ranging from about 3,100 to 4,700 feet, comes the Catena High Mountain Vines Chardonnay 2012, from Bodega Catena Zapata, a wine that spent 10 months in French oak barrels, 35 percent of which were new. The color is radiant medium gold. Aromas of ripe pineapple and grapefruit, with a hint of peach and mango, are wreathed with cloves, lime peel, wet stones and a touch of buttered toast; a few moments in the glass bring out notes of jasmine and lilac. This chardonnay is distinguished by its deeply spicy nature and a lovely, seductive texture that perfectly balances the muscle and bone of limestone minerality and bright acidity with an almost cloud-like, talc-y softness. The wine picks up sinew as it goes, with a close to tannic effect, and builds to a conclusion of tremendous presence, tone and character. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Winemaker was Alejandro Vigil. Excellent. About $20, a Bargain to Shiver Your Timbers.

Imported by Winebow, Inc., New York. A sample for review.

LL made pappardelle with chanterelles; I opened the Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2011, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. Ka-wham! Synergy. Meeting of true minds. Cosmic twins. Sublime dish with a divine wine. I could probably stop there, but you know I won’t. The wine is made from a high-elevation dry-farmed — that means no irrigation — vineyard planted 39 years ago. What’s remarkable is that the wines went through complete barrel-fermentation and aged in 100 percent new French oak barrels, yet it retains no sense of being woody or over-oaked or stridently spicy; those excellent mature grapes soaked up that oak and came out as a supple, subtly spicy and deeply nuanced chardonnay. The color is brilliant medium gold; aromas of pineapple, grapefruit and roasted lemon carry notes of jasmine and camellia, a hint of cloves, a bell-tone of mango. The wine is unusually dense and substantial without being heavy or viscous; it’s quite dry, almost tannic in effect, but it feels permeated with light and grace and elegance. a lithe and resonant construct of stones and bones, which is to say, abandoning metaphor, that it’s thoroughly enlivened by bright acidity and scintillating limestone minerality. The Smith brothers do it again. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 463 cases. Drink now through 2021 to ’23. Exceptional. About $30, a price more than fair for the quality.

This wine was a sample for review.

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