Spain


When I was a kid, I thought that picnics must be pretty damned cool and racy events, because I was familiar with Manet’s great painting Dejeuner sur l’herbes that hangs in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. In the book of reproductions that I looked at constantly, the two men and two women depicted in the work were described as “dining al fresco,” and since one of the women was nude and the other partially so, I thought that a picnic meant eating outside naked. Well, it didn’t turn out that way, damnit, but naked or not, picnics (under controlled conditions) can be quite charming. The foods I favor at these occasions include deviled eggs, cold roasted chicken, cucumber sandwiches, potato salad and strawberry shortcake; I don’t normally cotton to strawberries, the stupidest of the berry line, but in the picnic situation, they’re allowed. What’s also allowed are young, fresh, attractive wines that we can enjoy without worrying our pretty little heads too much; wines that offer an interesting level of complexity without being ponderous or demanding or shrill. That’s what I bring to you today, because as the temperature moderates slightly in some parts of the United States of America, My Readers might be contemplating picnics, even if they occur on the safety of their own porch or patio or backyard, rather than say, Yosemite.

None of these wines sees the least smidgeon of oak; none has an alcohol content higher than 13 percent; all slide across the counter at a reasonable price. The primary motifs are charm, delight, drinkability. With one exception, these wines are from vintage 2010; one is from 2009. All rate Very Good+ with one exception, and that’s a superb rosé that I scored Excellent. These are versatile wines intended to match with all sorts of casual fare, not just my ideal picnic menu. Samples for review, except for one that I bought.

Image from artchive.com.
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Let’s start with a delightful sip of something just a little sweet. Innocent Bystander Moscato 2010, Yarra Valley, from an area just northeast of Melbourne in Australia’s Victoria region, is exactly the color in your glass as you see in this illustration: a very pale melon/bubble gum pink. It’s what Italians call frizzante, which is to say sparkling but more of a light fizz than gushing effervescence. The wine is a blend of 65 percent muscat of Alexandria and 35 percent muscat of Hamburg. Here is pure raspberry and strawberry notched up by a spike of lime with delicate scents of watermelon and rose petals and something slightly earthy and foxy. In the mouth, Rainier cherries and orange zest come into play and a hint of cloves enveloped in chiming acidity and a bit of limestone-like minerality. The wine is slightly sweet initially, but it quickly goes bone-dry, while retaining a sense of ripe softness and talc-like lushness balanced by that crisp structure and gentle, fleeting bubbles. Absolutely charming and — a word I seldom employ apropos wine — fun. 5.5 percent alcohol, so you can drink a lot! Very Good+. Half-bottles about $10 to $12.
Old Bridge cellars, Napa, Ca.
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Torres Vina Esmeralda 2010, Catalunya, Spain. Well, now, what a sweetheart this one is! The color is pale straw-gold with a slight green sheen. The wine is composed of 85 percent muscat of Alexandria grapes and 15 percent gewurztraminer, so it’s not surprising that what you first notice about the bouquet are aromas of jasmine and honeysuckle, followed by peach and pear, and then a hint of lychee and petrol. The wine is sprightly, spicy, snappy, quite dry; it’s permeated by prominent strains of limestone and shale (though the texture is moderately lush) that bolster flavors of roasted lemon, canned lychee and some of its juice and a touch of peach nectar, all devolving to a stony, acid-lashed finish that reveals a hint of bracing grapefruit bitterness. Really charming. 11.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
Imported by Dreyfus, Ashby & Co., N.Y.
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Albariño is Spain’s white grape of the moment, and the Martin Códax Albariño 2010, Rías Baixas (in Galicia in northwest Spain) is a worthwhile interpretation. I found this wine’s invigorating dry grass-sea salt-roasted lemon-limestone character irresistible, and it immediately put me in mind of trout seared in an iron skillet with butter and capers over a camp fire (or Coleman stove), though that example truly sounds more like a cook-out on a camping trip than a halcyon picnic in a bosky dell. Add to those qualities hints of dried thyme and tarragon, yellow plums, quince and ginger, touches of fennel and cloves and a late-comer bloom of jasmine, and you get a well-nigh perfect picnic or patio wine. 13 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
Imported by Martin Codax USA — i.e., Gallo — Haywood, Ca.
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Grapes for the Chamisal Vineyards Stainless Chardonnay 2010, Central Coast, derive from all up and down the vast Central Coast region of California, but include a portion from the winery’s estate vineyard in the Edna Valley of San Luis Obispo. I love the name of this wine — “Stainless Chardonnay,” as if it were a product of immaculate conception — but the free-of-sin cuteness makes a point; this wine is made all in stainless steel and goes through no malolactic process in tank, so it functions as an epitome of freshness, bright flavors, vibrancy and minerality; it’s not just “no-oak” but “anti-oak.” My first note is “Lovely.” Pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors are imbued with hints of mango and guava (though the wine seems not a whit tropical) and touches of quince and lime. The texture is shapely and supple; it just feels beguiling sliding through the mouth, while plenty of limestone and steel and a hefty dose of jazzy acidity keep the keel on a purposeful cutting path across the palate. Thoughtful winemaking here from New Zealand native Fintan du Fresne. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $18.
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With its engaging manner, crisp liveliness and lovely tone and presence, the Domaine du Salvard Cheverny 2010 seduces the nose and gladdens the mouth. Made all in stainless steel from 100 percent sauvignon blanc grapes, this product of a small appellation south of the city of Blois and the Loire River offers notes of fresh-mown grass, dried thyme and tarragon, roasted lemon and ripe pear and heaps of lime and limestone. Lemon and lime flavors are touched by hints of sunny, leafy fig with a bell-tone echo of black currant at the center. Juicy and spicy, yes, but dry, stony, steely, deftly balanced between scintillating acidity and a delicately ripe, rich texture. The domaine was founded in 1898 by the Delaille family and has been owned by them since then; it is operated by Gilbert Delaille and his sons Emmanuel and Thierry. 12 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15 to $18.
Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Ca.
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Befitting a white wine that hails from an island, the Sella & Mosca La Cala 2009, Vermentino di Sardegna, is savory and spicy, brisk as a sea-wind fledged with brine, replete with notes of pear and almond skin, a sort of sunny lemony quality, and underlying hints of bees’-wax and jasmine. The winery was founded in 1899 by two friends from Piedmont named — ready? — Sella and Mosca. The wine is made from 100 percent vermentino grapes, some of which, after harvest, are allowed to dry before being pressed, a process that adds some richness and depth to the wine without detracting from its notable freshness and immediate appeal. Ringing acidity keeps La Cala 09 vibrant and resonant as a bow-string, yet the tautness is balanced by a texture of almost powdery softness. Completely lovely. 12.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $12, an Absolute, Freaking Bargain.
Palm Bay International, Boca Raton, Fla.
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Boy, is this pretty! The Bindi Sergardi Oriolus 2009, Bianco di Toscana, made in stainless steel, is a blend of trebbiano, malvasia Toscana and chardonnay grapes, to produce an unusual and very attractive combination. “Bianco di Toscana” is a basic designation that means, as if you didn’t know, “white wine of Tuscany,” so producers can do just about anything they want with it. In the case of Oriolus 09, we have a light straw color with a sort of ghostly green tone and a bouquet of almond and almond blossom, spicy lemon and lemon balm, cloves and shale and limestone. A few minutes in the glass bring up elements of spiced peach and pear, which provide high-notes in the aromas but dominate flavors bolstered by clean, fresh acidity and subtle touches of dried herbs, tangerine and steely limestone. 12 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
Imported by Le Vignoble, Cordova, Tenn.
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Luna Mater Franscati Superiore Secco 2009, produced by Fontana Candida, represents a rendition of the famous “wine of Rome” that is indeed superior. Such quality might not be such a difficult task to attain considering that most Frascati is bland and innocuous, but efforts are being made, and Luna Mater — “Mother Moon” — is among the best. Made all in stainless steel, the wine is a blend of 60 percent malvasia bianca di Candia, 30 percent trebbiano Toscano and 10 percent malvasia del Lazio, from vineyards that average 50 years old. What’s here? Almond and almond blossom with a touch of almond skin bitterness; green apples, roasted lemon and a bit of peach; dried thyme and lemon verbena; a very dry, steely and minerally effect in the mouth, with taut acidity, a rousing note of breeze-borne sea-salt and salt-marsh; rollicking spiciness from mid-palate back through a finish flecked with quince and ginger. 12.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $23.
VB Imports, Old Brookville, N.Y.
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Chateau des Annibals “Suivez-moi-jeune-homme” 2010, Coteaux Varois en Provence, from the area of Provence between Marseilles and Toulon, an absolutely classic South-of-France-style rosé, a blend of 60 percent cinsault grapes and 40 percent grenache, with a lovely pale onion skin color slightly tinted with very pale copper; dried raspberries and red currants with a tinge of melon and peach; bone-dry, scintillating acidity, a spicy finish flush with limestone; wonderful tautness and presence, a little electrifying yet pleasantly supple and nuanced. The best rosé I’ve had this summer. 13 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $18 to $20.
Bourgeois Family Selections, Asheville, N.C. I bought this one.
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Some friends came over a few nights ago for a meeting of a committee that LL and I are chairing for an animal-related fund-raising event, and of course I pulled out a few wines to slake their thirst and accompany a selection of cheeses and grilled vegetables. These friends are not “wine-people”; they just like to drink wine, though when they taste something good they can tell the difference between the good stuff and some bland, innocuous fluff. The temperature was a bit chilly for late March — the month came in like a lion and seems to be going out like one too — so I made it a red wine occasion, to which no one objected. I thought diversity in country and grape variety would be interesting, so here’s what I opened: Gainey Vineyard Merlot 2007, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County; Inurrieta Sur 2007, Navarra, Spain, a blend of garnacha and graciano grapes (maybe; see review below); and La Valentina Spelt 2006, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Italy. These wines were samples for review.
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When I poured a few glasses of the Gainey Merlot 2007, Santa Ynez Valley, someone said, “Ymmmmm, so glad you chose this one!” The wine is a blend of 95 percent merlot, 4 percent cabernet franc and 1 percent cabernet sauvignon; it aged 19 months in French oak, 38 percent new barrels. Boy, this is deep, rich, glittery yet impeccably balanced merlot, permeated by black currant and black raspberry scents and flavors thoroughly imbued with notes of mint and cedar, smoke, graphite-like minerality and polished oak that takes on a bit of toast. The smoky quality, which unfurls to reveal hints of bitter chocolate, black tea and lavender, intensifies as the moments pass, as does the more profound depth of dusty tannins, earthy loaminess and shale. Not that the wine is forbidding; oh, no, these serious qualities, along with vibrant acidity, are necessary to temper, if not tame, the wine’s profuse sensual attractions. Quite a performance. 13.9 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $20, Great Quality for the Price.
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There’s a bit of confusion about exactly what grapes go into the Inurrieta Sur 2007, from Spain’s Navarra region. The back label tells us that the wine is a blend of garnacha (grenache) and graciano; the printed matter I was sent with the wine says 60 percent garnacha and 40 percent syrah; the winery’s website asserts that the wine contains garnacha, syrah and graciano grapes. O.K., people, let’s get the story straight! The point is, when I poured our friends a glass of the wine, a chorus of “whoa” and “wow” filled the air. The wine is a dark ruby color, while the bouquet is deeply spicy, sooty, smoky, ripe and funky in the fleshy, meaty sense. This is a delectable quaff whose residence in American oak barrels for six months lends a combination of suppleness and sinewy power to the flavors of black currants, black raspberries and mulberries, all slightly macerated and roasted. The whole effect is sleek, burnished, highly drinkable, now through 2012 or ’13. I almost wish I had saved it for pizza, but I’ll find something else, don’t worry. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Very Good+. About $15, representing Great Value.
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The Wine of the Week on Feb 18 was La Valentina Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2008; now it’s the turn of that wine’s slightly older cousin, La Valentina Spelt 2006. Also made from 100 percent montepulciano grapes, Spelt 06 — the wine is named for the region’s dominant grain crop — ages 18 months, partly in stainless steel; partly in French barriques, new and one- and two-years old; and partly in 25 hectoliter barrels. Nothing rustic here; this is a lovely, balanced, eminently drinkable red wine notable for a beguiling bouquet of mint and eucalyptus, slightly spiced and macerated black currant, black raspberry and plum fruit; and a deep dark woody/spicy/chewy/dusty/tannic/graphite/minerally texture and structure etched with delicate tracings of licorice, lavender and potpourri. Alcohol is a sensible 13.5 percent. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $22.
Imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Cal.
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The wines of Vinedos y Bodegas Garcia Figuero — to give this estate its full name — are made of 100 percent tempranillo grapes, some of which derive from vineyards that date to the 1930s. For decades, the grapes from the Figueros vineyards went into the wines of other producers in the Ribera del Duero region in north central Spain, part of the province of Castilla y Leon, until the family launched its own winery in 2001. As far as this palate is concerned, it was a wise decision.

Yes, these wines age in French and American oak barrels, much of them new barrels, qualifying the the wines for the often-used designation “new” or “modern” wines, in opposition, I suppose, to “old” or “traditional” wines, you know, the ones that aged years in large, ancient wooden casks or vats and emerged dry, austere and fruitless. I tend, as I have iterated many times, to be a purist about such notions of a region’s tradition and heritage, but Figeuros proves that we don’t have to adhere to tradition slavishly. Yes, the top levels of these wines display notable austerity on the finish, but that quality is preceded by rich, ripe fruit.

The Figuero 15 2004 and Figuero Noble 2004 I reviewed in June 2008, and these vintages are still the current releases for the wines in the U.S.A. I tasted them again in September 2010, and it was fascinating to see how the wines had developed over more than two years.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Cal. Samples for review.
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Figuero 4 2008, Ribero del Duero, aged four months in a combination of 85 percent American oak and 15 percent French oak, all new barrels; the grapes derive from vineyards that are 10 to 20 years old. The wine presents a dark ruby color and aromas of black currant, black cherry and wild mulberry drenched in spice, dried flowers and dried herbs. This is a solid, dense, chewy wine, almost powdery in the texture of its resilient tannins and graphite-like minerality, yet the black and blue fruit flavors are succulent and luscious, unfolding with tantalizing hesitation to reveal depths of lavender and licorice, dried fruit and bitter chocolate. Bring on the medium-rare rib-eye steak, the grilled pork chops, the roasted leg of lamb studded with garlic and rosemary. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Very Good+. About $20.
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What are the differences between Figuero 4 2008 and Figuero 12 2005? First, of course, the vintages; second, those numbers, 4 and 12, that indicate that aging times, 12 months opposed to four months. The grapes for Figuero 12 ’05 are from vineyards that are 20 to 40 years old. Interestingly, this is the only wine in the group that does not spend time in new oak; the barrels, 90 percent American and 10 percent French, are two or more years old. In the bottle, somehow, these factors translate to more of a mineral edge, more forest-freighted tannins yet also more spice, more forcefully juicy black currant, black cherry and plum scents and flavors and greater fathoms of potpourri, lavender, licorice and bitter chocolate. The finish is long, solid, packed with dense tannins and sleek oak, though the wine exhibits lovely balance and integration of all parts. Another wine for roasted and grilled red meat. 14 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $33.
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Here’s what I wrote about Figuero 15 Reserva 2004 in June 2008:

Next is Figuero’s 15 Months in Barrel Reserva 2004, a wine that I found absolutely compelling in smoothness and mellowness, in balance and harmony. The grapes are from 50-year-old vineyards. Despite aging in new barrels for 15 months — 95 percent American — the wine, like its cousin mentioned above, displays no trace of vanilla or new oak toastiness. Instead, the oak provides a sturdy framework, a permeating presence of spice that never becomes obtrusive. Mint, eucalyptus and cedar float above scents and flavors of black currant, black cherry and plum set into a lush, dense and chewy texture. I rated the wine Excellent and said to drink through 2012 to ’15.

To which I would add that tried again in September 2010, the wine felt even more integrated, more harmonious, heady, seductive, dense with dusty granite-like minerals and dusty, briery tannins, yet lush and silky, deeply and darkly spicy and fruiyt; the finish lasts and lingers. I would extend the consumption window to 2015 to ’18. 14 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $80.
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And here’s what I wrote about the Figuero Noble Gran Reserva 2004 in June 2008:

You will need patience for the Figuero Noble Gran Reserva 2004. The vines whence the grape derive are more than 70 years old, a factor that contributes to the wine’s extreme density, richness and austerity. The aging is sequential, first 15 months in American oak, then six months in French. It’s true that Noble 2004 emits beguiling touches of cedar and tobacco, mint and eucalyptus, but this is mainly about gritty tannins, polished oak and brooding earthy, minerally qualities that will require aging until 2011 or ’12 to achieve company manners. After that, consume through 2018 or ’20.

A bit more than two years later, the wine felt much the same though it had deepened the effect of its layers of black fruit flavors and spice and had smoothed out and mellowed, with the oak thoroughly absorbed, into almost inexpressible confidence, balance and integration. This would be superb with small games birds like squab and pheasant, but I sipped it, instead, with a demitasse of espresso and a slice of intense chocolate cake. Yikes! 14 percent alcohol. 2018 to ’20 still seems reasonable. A world-class wine of unimpeachable character. Exceptional. About $130.
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Well, here’s a reasonably priced and winsome little red wine to drink with pizza (as we did last night) and pastas, hearty winter soups and braised meat dishes. It’s the Evohé Viñas Viejas Garnacha 2009, from Spain’s Vino de la Tierra del Bajo Aragón region, which, I have to say, is a new one on me, and as my seventh grade teacher Miss Simpson told our class almost every day, “Experience is a dear teacher, but fools will learn no other way.” The wine is made by Bodegas Leceranas in Zaragoza and imported by Vinum International in Napa, Ca., but in reality Evohé is one of the brands on the vast roster of Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Co. (Franzia has at last conceded to the Forces of Modernity and allowed a website where you can see how vast this roster is, and I recommend that you do.) Anyway, evohé — ay-voh-hay — is an ancient Greek word of greeting and evocation, much like its Latin cognate “Ave,” used in the Bacchic rituals to hail with exuberance the return of the god of wine and disorder to his ecstatic and generally disorderly followers; remember that in The Bacchae of Euripides the mad and maddened Maenads tear King Pentheus of Thebes limb from limb. That’s a heavy burden of myth, history and lexicography for a straightforward and tasty wine to bear, but such is the case, in my crammed mind at least. Anyway, Evohé 2009, which sees no oak, is pure grenache from start to finish, and, Mama, that’s all right with me. The color is a beautiful black cherry hue with a magenta rim; the bouquet is bright, ripe and vivacious with notes of blackberries, blueberries and black plums that seethe with lavender and licorice and sleek slate-like (say that three times fast) minerals. In the mouth, much is the same, with these luscious black and blue fruit flavors taking on wild touches of mulberry, briers and violets, all plushly set into moderately dense and finely-milled tannins allied to lively acidity. Alcohol content is 14 percent. Drink now through 2011 or into 2012. Very Good+. About $12, a Raving, not to say Dionysian, Bargain.

Image of Maenads doing a number on King Pentheus from a fresco in Pompeii (commons.wikimedia.org)

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.
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<>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.
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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
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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

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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.
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That black bottle of Freixenet Cordon Negro Cava represents one of the most familiar sparkling wines in the world. It’s tasty, simple, accessible and cheap. I have no problem with that. But the company delivers more character and quality in its Elyssian Gran Cuvée Brut, which is made not only with two traditional indigenous grapes — macabeo (30%) and parellada (20%) — but with 40 percent chardonnay and 10 percent pinot noir. The chardonnay and pinot noir, used in sparkling wine the world over, including Champagne, lend Elyssian Gran Cuvée Brut a touch of elegance and presence often missing from other examples of Cava.

The color is pale, pale gold; bubbles are active, persistent and tiny, though a little fatter at the outside. Fetching aromas of hay, salt-marsh, ginger, cloves and almonds combine for an engagingly fresh, clean bouquet that takes on a hint of something exotic, slightly honeyed or spiced nectarine or mango. In the mouth, this is very dry, very crisp, teeming with notes of roasted lemon and peach, limestone and oyster shell, all devolving to a spicy, stony finish. Heaps of personality. Very Good+. About $18, a Great Value.

Imported by Freixenet USA, Sonoma Cal.

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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We were introduced to sorrel soup by Justin Young, who was chef at the now closed La Tourelle (in Memphis) in the early 2000s. Not having had such a thing in years, we bought a pound of sorrel at the Memphis Farmers Market last Saturday — the market will not open again until April — and looked for a recipe, which we found in the essential Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters (HarperCollins, 1996).

Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is a green leafy vegetable, accounted more as an herb that vegetable in some national cuisines, whose chief characteristic is a sour grassy character that derives from oxalic acid, which is fatally poisonous in large quantities. How large? Sources aren’t very specific about that point. More than a pound certainly. Perhaps a bale.

Anyway the issue that intrigued me was what wine to drink with sorrel soup. That notable sour quality, which possesses a hint of sweetness — LL likened it to pulling up a grass stem and sucking on the root, a memory from childhood — might be a challenge to any number of wines. (The sourness is leavened somewhat by the gentle stewing in chicken stock of diced potatoes, carrots and onions.) In the interest of research, I lined up five white wines, several of which seemed probable matches and at least one of which seemed doomed to failure by its very nature. These were the wines we tried: Domaine Ferret Pouilly-Fuissé 2008; Grinalda Vinho Verde 2009; Albert Mann Pinot Blanc 2008; Mendel Semillon 2009; Unus Old Vine Macabeo 2009. These wines were samples for review.
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Among this experiment’s surprises was how well, even how profoundly so, the Domaine Ferret Pouilly-Fuissé 2008 went with the sorrel soup. The domaine was founded in 1840; the Burgundian negociant Louis Jadot acquired the property in 2008. The wine is, of course, made completely from chardonnay grapes; it ages half-and-half in stainless steel tanks and oak barrels and sees no new oak. I had doubts about chardonnay pairing with the earthy sourness of the sorrel, but the wine’s purity and intensity, its crystalline acidity and minerality created a risky synergy that practically vibrated in our beings. The wine is a medium gold color; aromas of roasted lemon are permeated by ripe peach and pear, with traces of quince and ginger and a hint of camellia. Befitting its pedigree and reputation — “the Montrachet of Pouilly-Fuissé” — the wine delivers wonderful presence and body yet remains delicate, fleet and racy. Citrus flavors dominated by lemon with a touch of lime peel are deeply imbued with baking spices but even more with depths of limestone-like minerality and scintillating acidity. Drink now through 2014 or ’15 (well-stored). Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Excellent. About $30.

Imported by Kobrand, New York.
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Let’s turn to the simplest of these wines, simplest yet definitely lively, tasty and appealing. This is Aveleda’s Grinalda Vinho Verde 2009, from the vast Vinho Verde region that stretches north from the seacoast town of Oporto to the river Minho and also east and southeast of Oporto. (You drive east through this area to reach the Port estates of the Douro Valley.) The wine is a blend of loureiro grapes (55%), trajaduras (32%) and alvarinho (13%). These “green wines” are fresh and vigorous and intended for early drinking. Made all in stainless steel, the clean, fresh Grinalda Vinho Verde 2009 bursts with scents and flavors of apples, pears and spiced lemons bolstered by heaps of earthy limestone and vivid acidity. There you have it, and you could not ask for anything more from such a fresh, delightful wine. Drink over the next six months. Alcohol content is 11.5 percent. Very Good+. About $14.

How did this match with the sorrel soup? It didn’t. The sourness of the sorrel washed right over it, tromped on it, obliterated it, left it for dead.

Imported by Winbow, New York.
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Let’s go back to France for the Albert Mann Pinot Blanc 2008, from Alsace. The estate is the result of the joining of two venerable grower families in Alsace, the Manns and the Barthelmes, each of which has been cultivating grapes since the first half of the 17th Century. The Albert Mann Pinot Blanc 2008 is absolutely lovely in every aspect. The color is bright, shimmering medium gold; aromas of apple and spiced pear, with a touch of leafy fig and orange rind, all founded on the dominent presence of limestone, balloon from the glass. The paradox of a texture that’s both suave and elegant, on the one hand, and nervy and crisp, on the other hand, contributes considerably to the wine’s charm and fascination. It’s quite lively and dry, vibrant with limestone- and shale-like minerality, and its spicy, slightly earthy citrus qualities increase through the finish. The estate is organically managed and certified by Ecocert. 12.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Closed with a screw-cap. Excellent. About $20.

This was lovely with the sorrel soup, having the interesting effect of bringing out the herb’s hint of sweetness.

Imported by Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, Penn.
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Another very attractive match with the sorrel soup was the Mendel Semillon 2009, from the Altamira-Uco Valley area of Argentina’s Mendoza region. The vines, which stand at 3,600-feet elevation, are more than 60 years old, lending the wine irresistible depth and character. Fifteen percent of the wine aged eight months in new American oak barrels. Hay, honey and waxy white flowers, roasted lemon and lemon balm are woven in the seductive bouquet. If you can tear yourself away from these heady aromas, you’re treated to a wine that in texture and structure is as refined and ingratiating as you could ask for, though I don’t mean to imply that the wine is wimpy or over-delicate; in fact, it feels rather as if it had been honed from limestone and slate and burnished to a sheen with a little of that oak (and plowed by keen acidity). It’s sunny, leafy, with touches of fig and fresh-mown grass, hints of cloves and ginger, greengage and pear. Quite an experience, round, complete, balanced, complex. 900 six-packs were imported. 13.6 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. About $25 and Worth a Search.

Imported by Vine Connections, Sausalito, Cal.
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Last, we come to a wine that was fine, you know just fine, with the sorrel soup but opened to more astonishment than the other wines because of its amazing quality and price ration. I wrote previously about the great bargain called Agustin Cubero Unus Old Vine Garnacha 2007. Today it the turn of that wine’s stablemate, the Unus Old Vine Macabeo 2009, likewise from Spain’s Calatayud region, situated about halfway between Barcelona and Madrid (but closer to Zaragoza). The macabeo grape is also known, perhaps better-known, as viura, though clearly we’re not taking sauvignon blanc here. Made all in stainless steel, the wine is beguiling, intriguing and really pretty. Grass and hay, dried wild flowers, cloves and allspice, apple and pear, quince and ginger — all combine to charm and enchant. Now in truth these sensual qualities so seductive in the bouquet also characterize what goes on in the mouth; there’s no sense that flavors develop beyond the aspects of the bouquet (though the texture — the “mouthfeel” — is graceful and delightful), but who cares when the price is — ready? — a wallet-busting $9. Buy this by the case for drinking over the next year. The rating is Very Good+. A Bargain of the Century and Worth a Search.

Scoperta Imports, Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
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The label of the Juane Serra Cristalino Brut, a 10-dollar CAVA sparkling wine from Spain, carries this disclaimer: “JAUME SERRA CRISTALINO is not affiliated with, sponsored by, approved by, endorsed by, or in any way connected to Louis Roederer’s CRISTAL™ champagne or Louis Roederer.”

Not meaning to be a total asshole or anything, but would anyone with even a modicum of sanity think that these products, which stare at each other across a vast abyss of intentionality, taste and expense, have the slightest connection to each other? To refresh your enfeebled memories — it’s the end of a very long week, right? — Louis Roederer Cristal is one of the grandest of the grand cuvee champagnes, served in the hallowed temples of cuisine and beloved by hip-hop artists who splash it around their hotel rooms or the interiors of their Escalades with gleeful prodigality. Retail prices for Cristal range from about $200 to $300 a bottle; the cost in a restaurant or from room service is unimaginable. Cristalino, as I mentioned, retails for about $10 and is often discounted to $7 or $8.

It struck me that the language of the disclaimer possesses the stink of legalese, and a little research by my lovely assistant, Miss Google, proved that indeed back at the beginning of August the producer of Cristalino — J. Garcia Carrion — lost a four-year lawsuit for copyright infringement brought by Louis Roederer. (Those interested in the actual brief may read it at the Minnesota Litigator website.)

I received a bottle of Jaume Serra Cristalino yesterday by overnight delivery — my friendly UPS man said, “Wow, they really wanted you to have this in a hurry!” — along with related press and technical matter. The letter from the importer, CIV (USA) in Sacramento, begins thus: “Hello, I’d like to share with you some exciting news about Jaume Serra Cristalino, … [which] has an entirely new look this year for the Brut, Vintage Brut, Rose Brut and Extra Dry sparkling wines that are now in the U.S.” I suppose I can’t blame the company for not adding “and the reason we have an entirely new look is because we suffered a humiliating loss in a lawsuit brought against us for copyright infringement.” The company was required to change everything about the label: color, typography, font, devices, the whole shebang. You can see in the photo I took of the lower half of the new label that “Jaume Serra” now gets top billing over “Cristalino.”

Will the litigation, the negative ruling and the radical change of label hurt sales of Cristalino? Naw. Remember the mantra of the old-time Hollywood agent: “All publicity is good publicity.” The CAVA has been marketed in the U.S. since 1989 and by 1997 was selling about 400,000 bottles a year. More recent figures are not available, but anecdotally Cristalino is the country’s top-selling CAVA; I would be happy to receive more exact information. In any case, it’s hardly surprising that sales of Cristalino “exceed sales of Cristal,” as the lawsuit ruefully puts it — like boo-hoo — as if a sparkling wine that consumers could purchase by the case for as little as something like $84 wouldn’t outsell a luxury Champagne that could cost $2,400 a case, if you could find one. We’re talking completely different worlds here, and they not only weren’t separated at birth, they weren’t born in the same hospital.

My initial impression of the Jaume Serra Cristalino was a bit negative because the bubbles are rather large and flabby, but the steely, limestone-tinged bouquet drew me in with its hints of lemon, lime and grapefruit, its slightly nutty and yeasty character. This sparkling wine, made in the traditional champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle, is quite crisp and lively, and it’s that factor that makes Cristalino so fresh and engaging. It’s a blend of the typical grapes of the Penedes region, 50 percent macabeo, 35 percent parellada and 15 percent xarel-lo. Buy by the case for parties and receptions. 11.5 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $10 and often found two or three dollars cheaper.

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