Sparkling Wine

Here’s a first for this series: A sparkling wine from Merrie Olde England.

Digby Fine English was founded by Trevor Clough and Jason Humphries, who operate on the negociant principle of maintaining long-term contracts with trusted growers in the north and south Downs of Kent, Sussex and Hampshire, regions that overlie vast strata of limestone formations. The winery is named in commemoration of Sir Kenelm Digby, a 17th Century English philosopher, theologian, pirate and author who happened, as a sort of sideline, to invent the modern wine bottle. Our product today is the Digby Leander Pink Brut, nv, dubbed in honor of the Leander Club, “the world’s oldest open rowing club” — I don’t actually know what that means — with a portion of the sale of each bottle donated to the Leander Academy, which is, I suppose, where hardy lads learn to row boats. The Digby Leander Pink is a blend of 50 percent pinot noir, 35 percent chardonnay and 15 percent pinot meunier that aged two years in bottle on the lees. The color is very pale coral, and the essential bubbles flow upward in a rush of tiny gold glints; nothing showy here, but spare, delicate and elegant, with aromas of hay and heather, rose petals and strawberries twined with notes of pear and raspberry and a touch of fresh-baked brioche, all quite seamless and shamelessly appealing. Lip-smacking acidity courses o’er the palate, as Tennyson said, forming a vital foundation for limestone and seashell minerality and bracing salinity leading to a sleek, well-hewn finish. 12 percent alcohol. Terrifically charming; we enjoyed this one immensely. Production was 1,666 cases. Excellent. A local purchase, look for prices nationally from $55 to $60.

Vine Street Imports, Mount Laurel, N.J.

Readers who have followed this series — which started with the 2007/08 Yuletide season — know that the principle involved is never to repeat a Champagne or sparkling wine. I will use a different product from a producer, say a blanc de blancs instead of a blanc de noirs from the same house, but not the same item. It’s always a pleasure to introduce My Readers to products that are new to me (at least), and so today we look at the Champagne Leclerc Briant Brut Reserve, nv, a blend of 40 percent each pinot noir and pinot meunier and 20 percent chardonnay aged almost three years in the bottle on the lees. The estate was founded in 1872 and today owns 24.7 acres in Premier Cru vineyards, as well as holding contracts on another 19.7 acres from other growers. The property is operated on biodynamic methods, and the vineyards under contract are farmed organically. Leclerc Briant Brut Reserve offers a pale gold hue and an energetic effervescence of tiny bubbles; aromas of toasted hazelnuts, spiced pears and roasted lemons are twined with slightly toasty, yeasty notes and hints of sea salt, toffee and crystallized ginger. It’s a sleek and lithe Champagne, seemingly chiseled from limestone and flint and propelled by crisp acidity that keeps the whole enterprise fleetly light on its feet; the finish is dry, ethereal, smoky and fresh. 12 percent alcohol. A really lovely bottle of Champagne. Excellent. About $65.

Imported by Winebow Craft & Estate, New York. A sample for review.

In addition to being the Fourth Day of Christmas, today is Childermass, or the Feast of the Holy Innocents, that is, all the infants whom the suspicious King Herod had slaughtered in Bethlehem after he heard that the Messiah would be born there. Talk about a guy with a hair-trigger temper.

Born on this day were Woodrow Wilson (1856), Earl “Fatha” Hines (1903), Lew Ayres (1908), Stan Lee (1922), Dorsey Burnette (1932), Maggie Smith (1934), Alex Chilton (1950), Denzel Washington (1954) and Seth Meyers (1973).

… and no Champagne today but two examples of products from regions in France that use the “champagne method” or, as it’s usually called now, the méthode traditionelle, for sparkling wines in the Crémant mode. Both of these models, priced at $20, offer good value, especially if you’re looking for sparkling wine to serve at a dinner party or small gathering.

These wines were samples for review.

With its shimmering pale gold hue and finely-tuned froth of abundant, tiny bubbles, the Vincent Crémant de Bourgogne, nv, delivers lovely tone and presence. Made 100 percent from chardonnay grapes farmed on sustainable practices, this Crémant offers notes of pear, orange zest and lime peel with hints of almond blossom and hay; it’s quite dry, framed by limestone and a touch of salinity, yet ripe and tasty with citrus and stone-fruit and a shade of mango. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $20, representing Great Value.
Imported by Frederick Wildman and Sons, New York.

The Willm Brut Prestige Crémant d’Alsace, nv, is a blend of 80 percent chardonnay, 15 percent pinot blanc and 5 percent auxerrois. The color is pale gold, enlivened by a host of glinting tiny bubbles; notes of spiced pear, quince and ginger unfurl subtle touches of heather and orange blossom. Spanking fresh acidity lends crispness and appeal on the palate, where limestone and flint minerality provide structure and energy. The overall impression is of nuance and delicacy, aimed toward a chiseled finish. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $20, marking Great Value.
Imported by Monsieur Touton, New York.

Today, December 27, is the feast of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist, Jesus’ “Beloved Disciple.” He wrote the Book of Revelations — in the worst Greek in the entire New testament — and the Fourth Gospel. He is the patron of writers, theologians and publishers.

Jane Wilde, Oscar Wilde’s mother was born on this day in 1821. Also Louis Pasteur (1822), Sydney Greenstreet (1879), Marlene Dietrich (1901), Oscar Levant (1906) and Scotty Moore (1931).

Francois Drappier launched the Champagne house that bears the family’s surname in 1803, though the family had been in the region since the 17th Century. The estate goes back to the 12th Century, when Cistercian monks founded a monastery, planted vineyards and dug the vaulted cellars that are still a vital part of the property. The Drappiers, now in the eighth generation, continue to own and operate the estate, tending vines on their 57 hectares and having 50 hectares under contract with other owners. Champagne Drappier employs a minimal approach in many ways, particularly in the liqueurs d’expedition and in the smallest amounts of sulfur that can possibly be used. The Champagne Drappier Brut Nature Zero Dosage, nv, is 100 percent pinot noir, aged 30 months in bottle. The color is pure limpid pale gold, and the bubbles, without which any sparkling wine would not sparkle, n’est-ce pas, surge upward in a gushing froth. Notes of lime peel, pear, hay and heather open to a hint of fresh-baked brioche and the tang of preserved lemon and seashell salinity. With its incisive acidity and scintillating limestone element, this dry Champagne offers tremendous verve and energetic elan, leading to a finish that feels paradoxically delicate, elegant and finely etched. 12 percent alcohol. I could drink this one all day and night. Excellent. About $60.

December 26 is the day of St. Stephen, protomartyr, on which good King Wenceslas looked out on the snow that was deep and crisp and even. In the United Kingdom, it’s Boxing Day, not set aside for pugilistic activity but for presenting gifts or money to servants and other service people. If one was going about visiting on Boxing Day, then you also provided gifts to other peoples’ servants.

Imported by Dreyfus Ashby & Co., New York. A sample for review.

The good news is that the Iron Horse Gratitude Brut Rosé 2012, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, is superb. Also good news is that $5 from each bottle sold will go to The Redwood Empire Food Bank, which is providing critical supplies to evacuation centers and shelters in Sonoma County for people displaced by the recent devastating wild-fires, while working to ensure that those who needed food assistance before the fires are still able to receive help. It’s a blend of 76 percent pinot noir and 24 percent chardonnay, resulting in an entrancing hue of very pale coral-smoky topaz, enlivened by a fervent upward surge of tiny glinting bubbles. The first impression is of pure strawberry, a notion quickly subsumed by delicate notes of macerated peaches and spiced pears, highlighted by apple skin, blood orange and seashell and limestone minerality; in the background blossoms a trace of fresh-baked brioche. The lithe dynamic mineral element dominates the palate along with crystalline acidity for raciness and verve; a few moments in the glass bring in hints of lime peel and almond skin. The whole package is dry, spare and elegant, adding up to the best brut rosé sparkling wine I have tasted this year. 13.5 percent alcohol. Proprietor of Iron Horse is Joy Sterling; winemaker is David Munksgard. Excellent. About $65.

A sample for review.

So, what is “pet-nat”? Besides being a cute nickname. These of-the-moment sparkling wines, the darlings of astute somms — pétillant-naturel in French — exist at the basic level of making sparkling wine, less complicated than the méthode champenoise, more rustic in effect, yet often delicious and appealing. An added factor is that they seem the epitome of naturalness in winemaking. Simply stated: Wine is bottled before fermentation is complete, so that fermentation continues in the bottle (because of the residual sugar) and carbon dioxide forms: i.e, bubbles. The result is a light sparkling wine, often but not always slightly sweet, that tends to leave sediment as a mark of its down-to-earth character.

Today, we look at two examples of single-vineyard pét-nat sparklers from Onward Wines, fashioned in small quantities by winemaker Faith Armstrong Foster. These examples are bone-dry, spare and subtle, not as robust or complex as Champagne yet delivering very satisfying character of their own, with an unmistakable quality of authenticity and integrity.

These wines were samples for review.

The Onward Wines Sparkling Rose of Pinot Noir 2016, Redwood Valley, offers a pale coral-onion skin hue and delicate scents of blood orange and watermelon, sea foam and heather; mild effervescence keeps the wine gently but persistently animated. Traces of fresh, yeasty bread and lime peel highlight the nose and the palate, where lithe acidity drives through notes of dried red currants and the slight bitterness of grapefruit rind, all of these elements expressed with spare elegance, lovely balance and a touch of reticence. 12.1 percent alcohol. Production was 174 cases. Excellent. About $30.

Redwood Valley is a small American Viticultural Area (AVA), approved in 1996, in northern Mendocino County.

The color of the Onward Wines Sparkling Malvasia Bianca 2016, Suisun Valley, is pale platinum blond, a Jean Harlow hue, made lively by a steady stream of tiny bubbles; it’s made 100 percent from malvasia bianca grapes, which lend the wine notes of green apple, apple peel, almond skin and a slightly foxy greenness. This is very dry, almost austere, but delivers fresh and ripe touches of lemongrass and melon, cinnamon toast and orange blossom, energized by bright acidity and scintillating limestone minerality. 12.6 percent alcohol Production was 350 cases. Excellent. About $24.

Suisun Valley, approved as an AVA in 1982, lies east of Napa Valley in Solano County, bounded by Howell Mountain on the west and the Vaca Range on the east.

Well, here’s a milestone of sorts: The 300th entry in the Wine of the Day series. My Readers may remember that I started the Wine of the Day in May 2015 when a broken right arm interfered with my writing abilities and I was able only to type in short, erratic bursts. Like Topsy, the thing just grew and two years and three months later, here we are at No. 300. Shall I continue? I would like to hear from you about this issue, bless your little pointy heads and may your tribes increase.

For this 300th posting in the series, I’ll nudge across the line to a celebratory mode and offer a new label and product from the distinguished Champagne house of Laurent-Perrier. This is the Laurent-Perrier La Cuvée NV, which replaces the former Brut NV — “non-vintage” — in the house’s roster. Composed of 55 percent chardonnay, 35 percent pinot noir and 10 percent pinot meunier, the Champagne contains 30 percent reserve wines and attains 94 percent premier cru rating. It spends a minimum of four years in bottle on the yeasts before disgorgement. The color is very pale gold, and I’ll say right here that this was the most energetically effervescent bottle of Champagne I have ever opened; tiny, glinting bubbles surged in what seemed to be an endless foaming fountain in the glass. Aromas of slightly roasted pears, peaches and quince are incredibly fresh, clean and enticing, with touches of just-baked brioche and almond skin and a lightly honeyed aspect of bee’s-wax and white flowers. Incisive acidity cuts a swath through a chiseled texture that feels like the transfigured quintessence of limestone and chalk; paradoxically, on the palate this Champagne also delivers an element of talc-like softness, the resulting tension between the dry, honed quality and the powdery lushness providing a great deal of excitement as you drink. Ultimately, the Laurent-Perrier La Cuvée leaves the impression of fine-boned elegance matched to dynamic power. 12 percent alcohol. Cellarmaster is Michel Fauconnet. We loved drinking this one. Excellent. About $50.

Imported by Laurent-Perrier USA, Long Island City, N.Y. A sample for review.

The Côté Mas Brut Rosé, Crémant de Limoux, barely qualifies as a rosé wine by most measures, being a blend of 70 percent chardonnay, 20 percent chenin blanc and 10 percent pinot noir. In other words, 90 percent of this charming sparkling wine is white, with only a few dollops of a red grape to lend the requisite rosé color, in this case a beguiling light copper-salmon hue animated by a stream of tiny, glinting bubbles. The nose is pure raspberry, peach and lime peel; a few moments in the glass bring out notes of heather and seashell. This is crisp, dry and tart on the palate, where lip-smacking acidity keeps it lively and engaging and the minerality of damp limestone and flint delivers reasonable structure for nice heft and balance, all these elements supporting subtle flavors of roasted lemon and strawberry. 12 percent alcohol. A lovely aperitif. You could sell about a million glasses in bars and restaurants. Very Good+. About $16 and often found discounted to $13 or $14.

Limoux has an interesting history, because the first sparkling wines were apparently developed there as early as 1531, at the Abbey St.-Hilaire, and pre-dating sparkling Champagne by 150 years. These wines, traditionally made from the mauzac grape, underwent a natural process of second fermentation in the bottle in the Spring after the harvest, as the temperature warmed. The fairly rustic Blanquette de Limoux sparkling wines were supplemented in 1990 by the creation of Crémant de Limoux, designed to be more modern and to exploit the increasing acreage in the region devoted to chardonnay and chenin blanc grapes. Limoux — pop. 9,781 souls — a commune and subprefecture in the Aude department in the vast Languedoc-Roussillon region, lies a mere 30 kilometers or 19 miles south of the celebrated castle-city of Carcassonne, nestled in the French foothills of the Pyrenees mountains.

Imported by Esprit du Vin, Boca Raton, Fla. A sample for review.

Fathers & Daughters Cellars only made its first wine in 2015, though the family, longtime owners of the Ferrington Vineyard in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, for many years sold primarily pinot noir grapes to such highly regarded labels as Williams-Selyam, Flowers and Arista. The winery represents a collaborative and multi-generational effort of the “fathers and daughters” in the family: Patriarch Kurt Schoeneman, his daughter Sarah, Sarah’s husband Guy Pacurar, their daughter, Ella, and Guy’s older daughter, Taylor. Winemaker is Phillip Baxter. I was mightily and sort of incrementally impressed with the trio of wines reviewed on this page today, particularly the limited production Ella’s Reserve Pinot Noir 2014, which any devotee of West Coast pinot noirs should search for diligently.

These wines were samples for review.
First, a sort of jeu d’esprit of a lightly effervescent sparkling wine, the Fathers & Daughters Cellars Sarah’s Rustic Bubbles 2016, Anderson Valley. With no second fermentation in the bottle as is the case with most sparkling wines, including Champagne (or in tank, in the Charmat process), this delightful and intriguing wine is made in what in parts of France is called the methode ancestrale or methode rurale, that is, a young wine is bottled before all the residual sugar has transformed into alcohol, so the fermentation that continues in the bottle produces carbon dioxide, hence: bubbles. For this wine, the initial fermentation was in all neutral French oak barrels. Sarah’s Rustic Bubbles ’16 was made completely from chardonnay grapes, being, in reality, a blanc de blancs. The color is pale yellow-gold, animated by a steady but narrow stream of tiny, foaming bubbles; the bouquet is characterized by freshly cut lemons, ginger, cloves and seashell salinity; the whole effect is of light, delicate brightness, garden freshness, but exhibiting a touch of muscat’s foxy petrol nature and hints of peach, heather and chalk. 13.9 percent alcohol. Could be an essential Summer quaff, except that production was 100 cases. Contact the winery to see if the tasting room can ship you a few bottles. Very Good+. About $19.
A blend of sauvignon blanc, gewurztraminer and chardonnay, the Father’s & Daughters “The Dance” 2016, Anderson Valley, is a perfect wine for Summer sipping. Fresh as a daisy, with a sort of fruit cocktail-pear compote quality, the wine offers a pale straw-gold color and a light, delicately sweet apple character touched by a broad floral nature and hints of straw and meadowy herbs and flowers. It’s a bit musky — the gewurztraminer speaking — and very dry from mid-palate back through the finish blithely furnished with notes of spiced peaches, quince, lemongrass and limestone minerality. 13.7 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018. This one really grew on me. Excellent. About $28.
All right, the previously mentioned wines were attractive, interesting and entertaining, certainly worthy of attention. The Father’s & Daughters Ella’s Reserve Pinot Noir 2014, Anderson Valley, however, is something else, as in among the very best pinot noirs I have tasted this year, a wine of profound yet ineffable elegance and power. The grapes were hand-harvested, and fermentation was accomplished by native yeasts; the wine saw no new oak but aged 18 months in 30 percent once-used French barrels and 70 percent neutral barrels. The color is lovely limpid cherry shading to a delicate invisible rim; aromas of ripe black and red currants are permeated by notes of cloves and rose petals, cranberry and loam, beetroot and rhubarb. The wine is beautifully balanced and integrated, lithe, supple and satiny on the palate but pulling up a burgeoning tide of iodine and graphite, briers and brambles and a touch of flinty austerity; a few moments in the glass unfold elements of sandalwood and cherry compote. Energized by bright acidity, the wine delivers a long follow-through for the finish. 13.8 percent alcohol. Drink through 2020 to ’22. Production was 110 cases. Exceptional. About $42.

We think of the cabernet franc grape as a fairly robust fellow, but the Gratien & Meyer Crémant de Loire Brut Rosé
turns it into something delicate and elegant. Made in the Champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle, this sparkling wine offers an entrancing, limpid pale salmon-copper hue animated by a steady stream of lively effervescence and subtle, beguiling aromas of strawberries and raspberries, rose petals and heather; on the palate, this is crisp, lithe and refreshing, unfurling notes of limestone minerality and seashell salinity under hints of dried currants, orange zest and lime peel; a slightly creamy texture balances the bright acidity and mineral element. 12 percent alcohol. A truly lovely, straightforward quaffer of a sparkling wine, made for immediate consumption as you relax on the porch or patio or lounge about the kitchen. I could drink this all Summer long. Very Good+. About $15, marking Good Value.

MW Imports, White Plains, N.Y. A sample for review.

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