euro scribbles: a final day in Champagne…

Bubbles, french wine, French Wine Travel, organic wine, travel, Wine Travel

Where terroir is written in the wine when it comes to Burgundy–each parcel of land portraying its life with meticulous accuracy–Champagne’s terroir can be a little more difficult to decipher. At least for me. That is why it became so important to pay attention to each individual winemaker’s passion here. Each emphasized particular philosophies and sources for inspiration in their ‘artisinal’ work (a common word each used to describe themselves). For Goeffroy, there was a point to discuss native yeast fermentation, with Pehu-Simonet a shift towards biodynamics, both insisting upon blocked malolactic for cleaner execution of flavor. For Chartogne-Taillet, preservation of history but very progressive in his approach to find terroir in single vineyard bottlings.

The third day, we had only one appointment with one of my favorite producers: Marc Hebrart. There was no tour, rather a seat at a very cozy table and a focused tasting. Though Jean-Paul Herbrart, the current vigneron, spoke a little less English, he communicated so much in his wines and his conversation of them. For him, blending was the way to achieve complexity. He alone owned about 85 different parcels of land, each with its own personality. To keep single might drive him mad, he laughed. A good looking gentleman, you could read laughter in his face over the years. It suited him and made us all so comfortable around him. Jean-Paul explained that for him, pieces of wine are so much greater together than the sum of its parts. Having just been on the other side of the tracks with Alexandre Chartogne, we appreciated another perspective, but nevertheless remained Switzerland in our opinion, grateful for so many styles!

Here, I really finally understood the great differences between Champagne’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the tongue. The former brought me back to raspberry La Croix water when I was young (only infinitely better!). The bramble fruit of raspberry, blackberry, blueberry and even black cherry dominated the flavors. Yeastier notes were to be found on the nose. For Chardonnay, elegance was centerstage. Lemon curd, yogurt and citrus peel were the reliable traits I kept meeting. The palate carried more acid and less body. They are sort of like hearing a child with a resounding singing voice. You don’t expect power on first glance… or taste. It is felt and understood by way of experiencing it. I am a sucker for Blancs de Blanc (100% Chardonnay) Champagne. They have won me over with ease. Not the least of which, Hebrart’s 1er Cru. 

I snuck away for a night and spent a night with my guy in Reims. His race has seen very unfortunate times this past week, but it cannot be helped. These things happen. This epic, historical race sees heights and depths that range so great along the way for everyone. Sadly, their team has been given a healthy dose of misfortune so far. If there is one thing I have learned, though, about Garmin-Sharp-Barricuda, they never cease to surprise. In these coming weeks, I am certain they will come out with their heads high and their results respectful and unexpected.

We took Terry Theise up on a recommendation nearby: Le Grand Cerf for dinner. We were thrown back maybe 50 years and given very traditional service, though it seems they are attempting to modernize their cuisine. I laughed when I looked at the menu.Your choice was an 8 course meal for 75 Euro or a small appetizer and entree for nearly 100 euro to start. I guess we were to have 8 courses. Gotta love how the French make the ‘right’ decision for you if you let them. Thankfully they were a series of very small, 2 to 3 bite sensations. It gave us time to talk, catch up and enjoy a few moments in this incredible setting.

The next morning I rejoined my group and we visited Goutorbe before leaving town. They were the same folks who owned the hotel where we stayed. What we found so remarkable about this family estate was how central they were to the community itself. They had a large space where one could imagine village events taking place, weddings, lectures, seminars and community functions. They had a large movie screen where even we sat to watch a film on the history of their estate and how it began with selling rootstock and vines. The operated a lovely hotel, obviously. They seemed very involved with the local government and community happenings. We were all quite impressed!

This was certainly the most traditional of the estates we saw. Their production was a bit larger. Their formula pretty consistent from year to year: 60/40 Pinot Noir/Chard blend, 9 grams sugar dosage, malolactic fermentation. But formulas work for good reason. Tasting though the selection, I was struck by its textbook elocution of ‘traditional’ Champagne. It is precisely the kind I would use to illustrate the classical characteristics to my customers. The prices were great, too. For those trying to break out of the obvious Veuve or Moet, this would be a natural step into discovering Recolant-Manipulants, or small grower farmer fizz.

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euro scribbles cont: getting down to business in the land of bubbles.

Bubbles, cycling, french wine, French Wine Travel, travel, Uncategorized

The morning is met with a rescheduled appointment, a series of unfortunate orienteering, but alas… unforgettable snapshots of memories that may not have been had we not gone off course. Not far from Ay, we visit Hautvilliers–home to the L’Abbaye of Dom Perignon. Though he did not invent these beads of beauty, he did learn how to perfect them and really grab hold of the method itself.

As we enter the cathedral, the same intoxicating smell of wet, chalky cellars fill my nostrils. I think to myself that churches should always smell so inviting. Perhaps I would frequent them daily! Classical music resounds in the space. Thin wooden benches are stacked left and right. There are massive wood cuttings one one side of the room, while renaissance murals line the other. Slate tombstones at the front before the altar commemorate the famous monk along with his scribe Dom Ruinart. I light a candle in the sanctuary and say a short prayer to my mom. I smile knowing this is as close as I might get to sharing Champagne with her. And it feels heavenly.

The church has a remarkable history, filled with strife, vulnerability and change. Since its erection in 650 AD by St. Nivard, it began its turbulent journey. Destroyed in 882 by the Normans, then restored in 1411 only to be burnt down 35 years later by the English in the 100 years war. It was consecrated in 1518, then burnt in 1562 by the Huguenots, rebuilt in 1603 and finally really restored with Dom Perignon’s presence beginning in 1672.

We press on to Verzenay, a blessed region in the Montagne des Reims that sees all Grand Cru vineyards. We meet with the consultant for Pehu-Simonet along with the son (who spoke little English). Here, we learn about their philosophies and methods. We begin to put together just how varied each vigneron really is, even if their common goal to produce high quality, small quantities are the same.

Like Geoffroy, they block malolactic. In doing so, they do not force the natural acidity to lessen. Both would agree this allows the fruit to be more pronounced, less obscured. I would agree, there was a difference to be sure– a lightness on the palate. Malolactic, much like it sounds, promotes a creamier milky body in the wine by inciting a lactic bacteria to convert the more tart malic acid levels. So here, in these wines, a linear quality is preserved. Apparently less than 1% of vignerons in Champagne block malo according to our guide, so this was very unusual that we met with two in a row!

Where they differ is yeast cultures. Geoffroy insists upon the native yeasts found on the skin and in the cellar to carry out the first fermentation. They believe it maintains the terroir of the region. Pehu-Simonet, though organic and in the process of becoming biodynamic, proudly stand by their choice to use non-native strains that are indigenous, however, to the Champagne region. For one thing, it is much less risky, and they feel confident they can repeat quality first fermentations time and again without the fear of interruption or, God forbid, a ‘stuck fermentation.’ When I asked him about possibly losing ‘terroir’, as the last winemaker insisted upon, he explained that while it may affect aromatics, that is not to be confused with terroir. Terroir, he continued, is felt on the palate. You cannot smell a region, you must taste the difference. One thing I found fascinating was that they selected much of their oak from the nearby Verzy forest (note: only their highest end wines see time in oak–most are steel or concrete). In doing that, he explained, there was another sense of local terroir added to their wines. It was all very poetic, and one thing was certain after all this ambiguity: both were phenomenal producers with distinctive styles. Where there was a note of opulence and restrained oxidation in Geoffroy’s bubbles, while a linear, tasteful reductive quality shined through in Pehu-Simonet’s wines.

We tried several wines at Pehu-Simonet, but the standouts for me were the NV Blancs des Blancs (thing lemon sorbet on a hot, sunny day) and the Blancs de Noir (100% Pinot Noir–a rare, rare thing to see), taken from the tenderloin of the slopes, beaming with dark berried fruit and coming out salty on the finish. It was difficult not to have the word ‘terroir’ beat through my brain with melodic persistence.

That, I think, is the true meaning of terroir.

Though hard to leave, we knew our next appointment would be equally interesting: Chartogne-Taillet, recently taken over by the ‘next’ generation: Alexandre Chartogne–handsome, gentle giant. He was very tall, good-looking, and he had the kindest eyes. His English was unbelievable, but he spoke with such humble hushed tones, you had to smile. Despite his quiet demeanor, however, he had an equal portion of fierce ambition to turn this 800 year old estate into something different. He seeks to shake things up in Merfy, a small village just north and west of Reims. How? In a region rampant with philosophies of blending, Alexandre is insistent that true terroir speaks through each parcel. Though he makes a famous cuvee–St. Anne– his focus is single vineyard expressions.

We spend the first part of the appointment getting to know one another. This was very important to do before meeting his cellar–a detail that I find important, as so many vignerons do it the other way around, tasting at the end. He showed us old journals of everyday notes his family has kept since 1700! He basically explained that this was important for him to understand his family’s tradition in taking over for future generations. He has a little guy of his own. Whether or not he takes over one day will be his decision. It is not forced on anyone. His son is two! Here’s hoping!

The most eye opening experience, really on this trip thus far, was sitting with Alexandre and being blind of 3 varying dosages on the same exact wine. Not only did it change the wine’s character remarkably, all four of us had extremely different preferences. One was dosed with 0 grams of sugar (Brut Nature), the others at 2 and 4 grams (Brut). Strangely, the first was the most appealing to me (and I usually like a dab of sugar to balance the acidity). The nose was almost nutty and fully enticing. The second took on a much fruitier presentation. It was favored by most. It had a fresh, vibrant quality without being too linear. Finally, the one with 4 grams, while interesting and well-received, left a very slight trace of residual presence on the palate–not in the lingering finish kind of way. To be clear, a dosage does and should vary dependent on zillions of reasons. Even a house style should listen to a vintage if something, like acid, has changed. For example, thought the sugar was noticeable in the one with 4 grams, we shortly thereafter had another wine of his–the 2006 Blanc de Blancs from the Heurtebise parcel–at a whopping 5 grams (yes, I am joking, as most ‘Brut’ in Champagne is 8-12 grams), and there wasn’t a trace on the palate. Time really integrated it, plus the acid was pretty rippin’! If you EVER have an opportunity to do this exercise, I recommend it. Tasting is truly the best teacher.

He showed us around the cellars, tasted us on pre-phylloxera 100% still (not fizzy) Pinot Meunier, and showed us old bottles from his personal non-bubbles collection. He then sat down with us, and really delved into his personal passion and vigor for maintaining single vineyard labels. His training in Cote des Blancs really affected him, changing his perspective forever. Though it goes against the norm, it creates yet another thought-provoking process in a region of such history and varied opinions.

As we drove away, we just couldn’t get over his passion– a passion so genuine, it was granular. You could touch it. Even if we understood the overarching technique and purpose for blending, his enthusiasm made it so you wanted to throw it out the window and hop on his bandwagon. His love was infectious.

Exhausted, we took our grubby, unkempt selves to a little pizzeria in Epernay. It was exactly what we needed. A bottle of Chianti and a couple of pies at 9 euros each. Epernay, while not over the top in its gastronomic options, was solid, quaint and right on the money. It was not overcome with tourists, overpriced as Reims or cheesy. It has a very local feel, many speak no English and your food is just very unassuming and well made. Even today, we sat at a simple corner Brasserie and had croque monsieur. It was sensational for 3 euro and full service. For real. Not to mention, yesterday we stopped at a couple little shops for bread, cheese and fresh salami to feed 4 people for about 12 euro. The same food at Whole Foods? Easily $45. It’s pretty awesome.

Stay tuned for the rest of Champagne in tomorrow’s blog…

In the meantime, on our way to Alsace today!

Le troisième Tour de French wines!

Bubbles, cycling, french wine, French Wine Travel, travel

As I gear up to head across the pond, here’s the 3rd Annual tour ahead… by the bottle. It’s a list I pull together every year for my customers. I figure my 3 readers (or 4 now?) may want to take a gander at the wine regions this year’s Tour de France plans to cycle through. It’s the kind of Tour I prefer…

Champagne (July 6)

Known to make full grown men weep like a baby, Champagne has long been heralded the most precious discovery in all the world’s wine. As with all things brilliant when it comes to wine, we can thank the monks for bubbles.  They invented these beads of beauty back in 1531 down near the Languedoc (sorry Dom Perignon—you may have been the Benedictine monk who improved Champagne, but it was your comrades who invented the concept).  They discovered that once you made a still wine, you could add a little more sugar and yeast (referred to as the ‘licor de tirajo’), bottle it back up and promote a second fermentation process.

At Little’s, we take it one step further with most of our Champagne— we dismiss the mass-produced negociant juice, which speaks to about 80% of the production. We opt instead for farmer fizz. Why is this so important? When you are spending over $40 on a bottle of wine, we want to ensure you are getting a product that has a name behind the label. No effort so strenuous as producing Champagne should go unrecognized. Not only that, you get more for your money! Most of ours are classified Grand Cru or at the very least Premier Cru—denoting the best vineyards in all of Champagne. Even Dom at $150 doesn’t wear that honor on its bodice! Some favorites: Marc Hebrart  ($52), Aubry ($40), Paul Dethune ($50), Varnier ($65), 2002 Gaston Chiquet ($72—half the price of vintage Dom Perignon!), and Chartogne-Taillet ($42).
Alsace (July 7)

Alsace. A region that once was Germany…then France…then          Germany…then France…and so on. For several decades now, it has fallen into the hands of the French, but its history is an inescapable characteristic of this region’s wine and culture. These flute-shaped bottles (much like German Rieslings), wear its varietal  name like a badge, as opposed to most of its French neighbors who go by blends & regions to describe what lies behind theglass. Here, they focus on: Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Muscat and even Gewurztraminer. Sure, they make some reds, but here white wine is the noble ageworthy grape.

The Alsace geographically resides in a fascinating area. Wedged as it is between the Rhine river to the east and the Vosges Mountains, it  has the unique advantage of a balanced climate, great mountainside terraced drainage and sun exposure. It is dry, sunny and just about perfect for their heralded varietals. Be sure to sample a few if you are so curious! We carry many from the 14 generations old Emily Beyer Estate, many of which start at only $19! They even make a red we carry at the same price. Prized Grand Cru can be found with Joseph Cattin’s Riesling at only $24. And don’t miss out on trying one the region’s most beloved and influential Zind Humbrecht, the first to practice biodynamics. We have his Pinot Blanc and blend, both about $25. Bubbles, called Cremant here, range from Cattin’s Brut ($18) to our household favorites: Allimant Laugner ($24) and Camille Braun ($25—a favorite of mine, so much so I am serving it at our wedding this fall!)

Jura (July 8)

A region that wins the obscurity contest based solely on the fact that these wines are so damn hard to find, expensive, and honestly not very researched at this point. The same voice for the Savoie—Wink Lorch—has become the voice for the Jura as well. Although the smallest region at 1500 hectares, it is also one of the more complicated. But let’s take a crack at it. Only 80 k east of Burgundy, it is closest in soils and style as you will ever get.

What we have to offer at Little’s is one of the reds from this mysterious region, a Pinot Noir: 2009 Chateau d’Arlay ($22). People joke that the reds here are so light in color that they are often mistaken for roses. Likewise the whites are so dark they are considered amber. Pinot, funny enough, are among the darkest compared to Trosseau and the even lighter Poulsard. Grown on soil remarkably similar to Burgundy, they are a hop, skip and a jump from being mistaken time and again. The delicate, tile-colored reds are high in acid and perfect with alpine cuisine—sausages, rustic casseroles and cheese.

Macon (July 11)

A recovery from the mountains and a rest day to boot, the race will press on through the southern section of the greatest wines on earth (fine, tied with Champagne, Bordeaux and Piedmont—-fair?): Burgundy. Thankfully, a little parcel of peat isn’t as expensive as those from the more northerly Cote d’Or. That parcel is the Maconnais. Here, excepting Beaujolais, you are in the warmest pocket that is famous for its richer, fuller, more modern style Chardonnays. For many, this is their first taste of Burgundy. Remarkably different in character from California Chardonnay, you really should give it a try regardless of your biases towards this popular varietal. And if you love Cali Chard, see what you think about these oft un-oaked beauties. While many are intended for early consumption, one little section is head and shoulders above the rest: Pouilly-Fuisse.

At Little’s, you may try both. We have a range of general Macon Chardonnays, such as the Cave de Buxy ($15), Cave des Grands Saint Veran ($15) and the ever so delightful Domaine Jean Touzot Macon-Villages ($16). You can also take it up a notch and grab the Domaine de la Collogne Gilles Noblet Pouilly Fuisse— we have the half bottle at $16 or the full size 750 ml at $26.

Savoie (July 12)

Back in the mountains we go, welcoming the crisp whites of summer that come along with it! To really appreciate the wines of Savoie, one must close their eyes and visualize the setting. High in the Alpine Mountains, where vineyards climb up either side of the valley, is a wine region that produces wines that taste of place. Crisp, minerally whites and the perky bitter edge of peppery red Mondeuse characterize the wines of Savoie. A French friend once recounted every winter when he and his buddies would pop up to Savoie for world class skiing, throw some Apremont in the snow by the hot tub and enjoy just after coming off the runs. It is the quintessential fondue wine, yes… but so much more. These are pristine, light, reflections of terroir in their finest light. Stretching from Lac Leman in Haute Savoie to the Isere Valley and Chambery , 1800 hectares comprises the Savoie growing region. The best vineyards are steeply terraced and south facing, much like Burgundy’s Cote d’Or or Alsace. ‘Vin de Savoie’ can come from all over the region technically. We have several, from light reds of Mondeuse, crisp Apremonts, and Jacquere from Chinian. They are no more than $15, making it an ideal summer go-to quaffer!

Rhone (July 13)

To be fair, the Tour will mostly be in the northern section this time around, but we are letting it slide, so you can taste the vast difference between the steeply sloped Syrah-loving north and Grenache-glutton south. Driving along the rather short stretch of land which marks the northern Rhone a mere 50 k north of the southern Rhone, you wouldn’t know they were related by name. In fact, one writer noted that all they have in common is a river. And that’s true. You will know you are in the north when suddenly very steep hills emerge from the ground near the river. Vineyards will be terraced all about, making it easy to figure out cardinal directions, for here, only the prominent vineyards of quality are planted on the northern slopes facing south. It is much harsher and cooler here than in the southern Rhone. They sip on the sun, just as we would water in the desert. The best vineyards also seek shelter from the Mistral as we would a tornado in the Midwest. Here, productions are small but treasured, for this region produces some of the most haunting, ageworthy Syrahs you will ever taste.

Pressing on to the South, the most memorable landmark—Mount Ventoux—is home to many a Tour de France stages over the years. A region that is felt, the southern Rhone has a penetrating smell that reflects the garrigue and herbs that characterize its environment. The Mistral is the single-most influential and challenging feature of the Rhone. It is typically going about 50k per hour during the day, sometimes reaching 90k/hr. At night it calms down. As a result, vines are often bush-trained low to the ground. Comes down the Alps and funnels through the Rhone Valley. It can also occur when pressure is high in the Atlantic and low in the Gulf of Genoa. However, in the summer it is merely due to the thermal depression in Provence. Keep this in mind the next time the boys in spandex ride their way through this gorgeous, and challenging piece of France!

Picpoul de Pinet (July 14)

It is always appropriate to start at the beginning. For the Languedoc, it just may be the little ancient ‘Piquepoul’ varietal, a white grape that was noted for its prevalence in the early 1600’s by botanist  JB Maniol. Though by no means an ‘intellectual wine’ to dwell upon, it has a distinct translation of place: the dry warm climate upon rolling hills of limestone amongst perfumed  pine groves and a cool necessary breeze coming off the Mediterranean—a breeze that moderates the heat allowing crisp acid to develop. An enticing terroir alternates between a limestone laden garrigue covered scrubland as well as ancient rock. An interesting fact to dwell upon, this region is bisected by the Via Domitia, a road that links Spain with ancient Rome. North of this route are the famous limestone soils amidst garrigue and pine. South speaking to the gravelly plain in the Mediterranean’s Thau Basin. Here in the basin, cuisine is reflective of its perfect source for shellfish (the natural accompaniment to this lively, bright white!).

Inside the bottle, the Picpoul comes off fresh and vibrant. The color is almost green-yellow in the glass. This wine radiates with citrus fruit and racy acidity. Translation: excellent food pairing, especially with shellfish and goat cheese.  There is also a slight glycerol, round note, too, though that provides the wine the balance it needs to entertain a variety of palates—a trait which really speaks to its popularity in the store. We have two to choose from here at Little’s. One has been here for eternity, and is honestly our best-seller of all time: HB Caves de Pomerols Picpoul de Pinet ($12). If you want to give another guy a try, we recommend the La Domitienne—our newest addition at only $13. Who knows? It may become your new favorite!

Limoux (July 15)

Still hanging around the massive Languedoc region, you will find yourself in the historic regions of Limoux—officially home to the first version of Champagne method ever created in 1541. Limoux, a wondrously pretty green valley, sits in the eastern foothills of the Pyrenees, west of the Corbieres hills. Winds prevail from the collision of Atlantic and Mediterranean influence, giving it slightly more maritime characteristics than the rest of the Languedoc. This area boasts distinct terroir through its rocky terrain of clay, limestone and sand. The unique climate allows for a slow, even ripening season. It was the first sparkling in France, the first AOC in the Languedoc. Due to their fortunate proximity to the Cork Oak forest the south in Cataluna,  it is thought that they were able to get the materials need for flasks allowing for secondary fermentation. Traditionally, Mauzac  (rustic, homey and reminiscent of apple peels and cider) was used as the base grape, but now many are finding that other grapes yield more complex bubbles. Though famous for their bubbles, they are increasingly becoming well known for some of the most complex Chardonnays in all of France, so watch out Burgundy!

We only have one Limoux currently in the store: The J Laurens Brut ($23).  I mean no trace of hyperbole when I says that it is as close as one might get to the real stuff from Champagne itself. This one sees 60% Chardonnay, 30% Chenin Blanc, 5% Mauzac and 5%

Pinot.  It is a tete de cuvee. It wears bright apple and lemon on the nose, but it also loaded with layers of spice and mystery… They have been around for over 80 years trying to get it right.

Gascogne (July 17)

A region that never gets overlooked for the great Tour, nesteld as it is in the massive Pyrenees mountain range, Gascony, as it is sometimes called, offers up on a platter some of France’s most obscure and fascinating wines! Whether the deeply colored Tannats from Madiran or the softly spoken whites of Jurancon and the general region of Gascogne itself, this alpine region boasts much more than merely cheese and foie gras (though those are beyond noteworthy!).

It’s easy enough to try the wine of the month, Lalande Chardonnay ($13)—a yummy alternative to the Maconnais. But for something even more crisp to pair with this wretched heat, perhaps the Domaine de Pouy is for you at $11. Browse the French wines for more inspiration, or settle on a nice bottle of Armangac to do the trick!

 Touraine:

While it takes no convincing our customers to fall in love with the likes of Loire’s Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumes, it is less often that we see you all walk out the door with Loire’s other gems from the center of the Valley: Touraine. Here, long-lived, complex Chenin Blanc of Vouvray and tender-hearted, peppery Cab Franc of northern-most subregion of Chinon take center stage. So unique in character are they that they have the ability to take you by surprise, capturing your intrigue in seconds, but having you searching for words of articulation for years.

If you have never met Touraine, it is time. Start with the carefree Sauv Blanc sipper from the organic, thoughtful Thierry Delauney with his Le Grand Ballon ($13)— a playful, crisp white that honors the annual hot air balloon festival in the Loire Valley. For a more complex Sauvignon Blanc, try the Le Clos Les Grandes Vignes while it lasts ($17)—about as close as it gets to their more famous easterly neighbors.

Get your Chenin Blanc affair started with the man who wrote the language of love for this grape: Kermit Lynch’s 09 Champalou Vouvray Sec ($24). Bruised apples, damp cellars, and honeysuckle are just a few things you might find… For a memorable biodynamic producer that has been around longer that the tuffeau soils that characterize this region, try Vigneau Chevreau’s Vouvray Sec. And finally, for a touch of sweetness, grab Domaine des Vodanis Demi-Sec Vouvray ($22). In 2007, Francois Gilet and Nicolas Darraqc joined forces after going their own ways for a bit after oenology school and founded this estate– a 4 ha property that was sold off by the prestigious Domaine Huet. They bought up another 10 ha and proceeded to make the best wine they could off those limestone soils using highly sustainable methods, borrowing often from biodynamic principles and adhering to strict measures of yield restraint for high quality.

 

And that’s a wrap! Stop by today, if you are in the neighborhood.  Grab your yellow Tour de French Wine card and get drinking! Each featured region gets you 1 bottle at 10% off. Complete all 10, and you will receive 50% off any one bottle of your choice from a featured! Come see why it is our most anticipated promotion all year!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Geeking out yet again: 7th Annual Wine Geek Dinner 2012

Biodynamic, Bubbles, cheese, cooking, Uncategorized, Wine Blog

This has been the second year I have been fortunate to attend the incredible Wine Geek Dinner, put on by my dear friend and part owner of Elysium Fine Wines, Trevor Martin (aka my Lopez de Heredia dealer). Each year he slaves away for literally days before this event, prepping the dishes and scribbling like a madman on his tattered menu that is scotch-taped to his kitchen cabinet. He goes to such lengths to pull this off in a way that might have you thinking you were surely at a 3-star Michelin restaurant rather than a humble garden level apartment in the Highlands. While he is busy ordering a 7 lb wheel of the stinkiest Muenster months out, our job as the lucky few guests is to pair his six course creation. At this point we strive to find bottles that are either quirky, thought-provoking and/or dusty.

What I found most interesting this year was that out of 13 bottles, we only had 2 reds. Bubbles, oxidized wines, old whites and fortifieds were coincidentally what all us geeks wanted to play with this year–it is a trend toward whites that I have been observing this whole last year. I am curious as to what that’s all about. I thought it was just me, but it most certainly is not.

I always love to give a little play-by-play to those who are curious. So here you are, my friends. Le menu avec les vins:

Image

Puff Pastry, Fava, Asparagus, Mushroom-Meunster Cream, Baby Shoots

’93 Nikolaihof Vinothek GV & a ’06 Helfrich Grand Cru Steinklotz Riesling

My eyes feasted on this first course as much as my tongue–the first ever in the history of WGD to be 100% vegetarian. An absolute cinch with the ’93 Nikolaihof Gruner Veltliner, this garden fresh starter was met with remarkable acidity and depth. This defined a truly sensational pairing, where both the food and its wine were made even more incredible when fused together. It was though my mouth became a magnifying glass. Such bliss.

The Riesling was outstanding. More than anything, it held its own with a rather tricky dish when one think of the vegetal compounds that can mess with wine. It was not enhanced, perhaps… but more importantly, it was not hurt by the dish. It was exquisite from the first taste to the last.

Butter Poached Lobster, English Pea Puree

1990 Laurent Perrier Grand Siecle Alexandria Rose

It is always such a treat to sip on old bubbles, especially when it is as lovely as the Grand Siecle. A honeyed salmon hue, the bubbles were far from gone. Tiny and fierce, those bubbles raced to the surface with awe-inspiring persistence.

 

                                         Garlic Pork Sausage, Flageolets, Chicory                                                                                                

                                ‘09 Clos Cibonne Tibouren Cotes de Provence                     ‘                                                 ’98 San Lorenzo Verdicchio 

Holding the hyperbole, this was still one of the best plates of pork and beans I have ever tasted. This homemade sausage brought out a little fruit that was silent on its own in the legendary Tibouren– a grape that inspired Andre Roux to rip up the Mourvedre in the ’30’s for Tibouren’s natural place in Provence. It had geek all over it. Very cool wine. I could stare at that playful label all day long. The ’98 Verdicchio was one of my contributions. Man, that was cool. This wine spends 9 years on its lees in steel and cement, then an additional year in the bottle. One might be shocked it sees no wood. Picked only in the best years from vines that bear a couple bunches of fruit, this wine only amounts to 2700 bottles. We won’t see it again until 2001 is released… in a couple years.

Colorado Rack of Lamb, Grains, Spring Vegetables, Mache, Natural Jus

’04 Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Brunello di Montalcino & ’82 Borgogno Barolo Riserva

Need I say much? This lamb was cooked to perfection. The Brunello was a bit young–but honestly, who cares. It was pretty lip-smacking with its sexy strength. The Barolo? I am biased, see… That is my birth vintage. I am quite proud of that fact. I have been lucky to try this one before about a year ago. Both times have been remarkably different, but both so very good. It reminds me that wine is very much a living, evolving thing. Unpredictable and multifaceted.

Les Fromages

A.E. Dor Pineau des Charentes 50 year

Stuffed to the brim and aching, I couldn’t resist the assortment of cheese to mop up a beauty of a fortified he had on the table. We began to open a couple others as cheese turned into strawberry crepes. We try a 2004 Piazzano Vin Santo, a 2006 Tre Monti Casa Lola Passito from Emilia Romagna and finally a ’92 Scheurebe from Lingenfleder in the Pfalz. Scheurebe, by the way, is the illegitamate cross of Riesling with some unknown varietal, according to a fellow geek. Very technical.

We are all a little starry-eyed at this point, but we don’t care. The name of the game is total, ridiculous indulgence for one night a year. And what a way to do it.

How to saber bubbles (and generally look badass).

Bubbles, Wine Education

Ever dreamed of winning friends and impressing thousands with one simple act? The vision of you being thrown onto the shoulders of loved ones and strangers alike, all shouting your name and cheering? We want to teach you a trick that just might help. Resolve to be hard core this year by learning how to master the art of sabering sparkling.

Sabrage, an awesome vocab word they never put in my GRE flashcards, dates back to Napoleanic times when the soldiers wouldn’t have the dexterity to open a bottle while riding a horse back to their bases. They would pull out their sword and have at it in order to celebrate (or mourn) the battle outcome. Nowadays, it is merely a tactic to impress friends, out-cool your colleagues or get laid (good luck with that).

First and foremost: Saber at your OWN risk. This is potentially very dangerous and could put out more than an eye if done incorrectly. It is only for the very courageous.

You will need:

  • A very, very cold bottle of bubbles (go cheap while practicing); do not freeze the bottle. Just don’t let it sit out for long.
  • A saber or butcher’s knife. We will be using the dull side of the knife. This is about pressure, not actually cutting the glass with a sharp knife.
  • Protective eyewear if you are smart and don’t care about people pointing and laughing at you.
  • A place outside that you can launch a cork thousands of miles per hour.
  • Lack of a conscience, as you might take out a small family of birds in the process.

Okay, here we go.

Step 1: Remove the foil entirely, you need a clean edge to slide the blade.

Step 2: Remove the cage, sure to keep the bottle ALWAYS pointed away from you and your audience, who should stay behind you at all times, we don’t want you to blind anyone or, God forbid, behead someone by accident with your blade.

Step 3: Find the most dominant vertical seam in the bottle. This is the vulnerable point.

Step 4: Hold at a 45degree angle and note the little rim, that will be where you want to hit the bottle with the dull side of the knife.

Step 5: You want to do this in one forward follow through motion. Just hit that point with little force and follow through.

Step 6: Before attempting any of this, watch some YouTube videos for motivation and visual aids.

Step 7: Enjoy being a total badass.

casting for deliciousness: a new eatery for Denver locavores

Bubbles, denver restaurants

Positive energy penetrates the newborn Wild Catch in Uptown on 17th and Ogden. Faces materialize from past restaurants, as servers and chefs from Frasca, Z Cuisine, Masterpiece Deli, Tag, Squeaky Bean and others come together with a new vision. Not only have they been bit by the epicurean bug that is buzzing through Denver and Boulder in the past few years, they seem to have a goal: to catch the big fish and win this horse town’s palate.

What stands out most to me is that in one room, some of the greatest local culinary talents coexist. One can almost feel their creative ions bouncing off one another. Even the menu is driven by local farmers and even winemakers (Infinite Monkey’s Vinaigrette is a lovely component in the grilled vegetable salad).

There is genuine excitement, hope and ambition bursting from within. And it doesn’t take much coaxing to feel the impulse to jump in and partake.

The wine list is one of the more inspiring I have seen come from a Denver restaurant in a while. Sommelier and General Manager Jonathan Greschler is clearly having a ball exploring the boundaries (and potential) of this city’s finest sippers. He notes that he was shocked that in the opening weekend when he unexpectedly sold through all his pre-2007 white Burgundy. That’s nothing short of phenomenal when I think of selling Burgs in my own shop. This economy just doesn’t see an eager AmEx like it did a few years ago. Plus, Burgs aren’t the easiest sell to someone that hasn’t been properly introduced. So it has me thinking, who is eating here?

Scanning the room, tattooed folk and blue haired people alike all want to drink the kool-aid. Wild catch has had considerable hype, and has evidently ‘caught on’. To see over time which demographic they net will be interesting. As I see it now, they have a little something for everyone.

The menu offers a wide array of options to appease both the veg head and the carnivore. I was under the impression it was mostly seafood, but there were plenty of other bites such as chicken 2 ways, Colorado rib eye, porky beans, and salads. However, the fruit de mers certainly take center stage. We shared some grilled lobster over fried green tomatoes (sensational), fried oysters and Arctic Char alongside ranch-kissed butter lettuce and the most sensational, addictive corn crab fritters I’ve ever tasted.

Anyone who has Sinsky Pinot by the glass wins brownie points by me. Anyone who deliberately seeks out incredible backvintages of Austrian and German wine wins my heart and ever returning palate. Kirchmayr Gruner from the ‘80’s tempt me to go back with my very next paycheck. I am so curious!

A good friend we ran into when we arrived gifted us a bottle of NV Selosse Blanc des Blancs— a legend until last night, I had never had the opportunity to really enjoy this wine beyond a taste here and there. NV or not, it blew the bubbles off most vintage Champagne I have ever held on my tongue. I reveled in its complex notes of day old apple, hazelnuts and baked bread all evening long, feeling so grateful.

If you want to feel passion pulsing throughout your entire dining experience, check it out while spirits are high and everyone seems ready to break out in the Smurfs theme song. The cuisine deserves it accolades, the wine list refreshingly unique, the servers top notch and Chef Brunson of Masterpiece Delicatessen coming to fruition in this Uptown eatery.

Which bed for the bubbly? A thumbnail guide to glassware.

Bubbles, Wine Blog, Wine Education

Ever wonder what’s up with all the different shaped champagne glasses?  With holiday parties looming, this question always surfaces.  Each shapes tells a history and purpose for their existence.  Here’s the run down…

 

Perfect if you're serving swill or you just want to capture all those beautiful beading bubbles!

The Flute: The flute still finds the most prevalence on the table.  It may not offer the most room for swirling and smelling the aromatics of a wine, but it sure does retain the most carbonation, allowing for a longer period of bubbles to stream from its base.  Though most often seen in a long, tubular style, the trumpet offers another option (although more bubbles escape with this shape…and I find the chances of dribbling like a fool are greater).  I would say for celebrations where lesser quality bubbles will be served, this is the glass you will want in peoples’ hands—more bubbles and people won’t be sniffing it out too much anyhow.  (Note: if celebrating with wine geeks, you may change this selection of stemware.)

 

By far, the most fun, especially if you're a sucker for Gatsby or Breakfast at Tiffany's.

The Coupe: I love this shape for one reason only—it transports you to another place and time.  Whether sipping Champagne in England in the 1600s, rubbing elbows with celebs post-Prohibition or dancing through the night at Studio 54 with a long cigarette holder in one hand, the shallow-bowled coupe was the way to go.  Through the ‘60’s this was the choice glass for sparkling—the posh, hip stem to flaunt.  Nowadays it has fallen out of popular favor.  Not only does it cause bubbles to dissipate almost immediately, you can’t swirl them!  They are fun for sure, but not quite practical.

 

The best option for a serious sip of bubbly.

The Tulip: If you didn’t know better, you may think this is a dessert or even white wine glass.  Fairly slim at the base and wide in the stomach it becomes narrow once more at the mouth.  This is the preferred glass for professional wine nerds.  My recommendation is to not fill it to the brim—maybe halfway—so you  can swirl and sniff to your hearts content and still retain some bubbles.  Sparkling wine—especially Champagne—can offer some of the most complex, fascinating aromatics in the world of wine.  To move right past them seems sacrilege!  I know, the bubbles are fun, but while the tulip still lets you revel in some beautiful beading, it opens up your nose and mind to a whole other dimension you’ve possibly been missing up to this point!

Sources for pics:

http://northgapartyrental.com/products

http://party.rainbow-rental.com/dinnerware/

champagne: it really does go to your head.

Bubbles, health, Wine Blog, Wine Education, wine news

Billie Holiday may have meant tipsy when she wrote about bubbles in a glass of Champagne going to her head, but I’ll have you know those  little carbonated beads of perfection do more for your head than you might think.  Red isn’t the only color of wine that provides health benefits.  Recent studies have revealed that the occasional glass of champagne actually works to protect the brain in particular.

A well-known antioxidant called polyphenols are responsible for this benefit.  The highest concentration may be in red wine, but bubbly isn’t far behind.  Polyphenols keep cells alive with oxidative stress.  Plus, sparkling wine contains other phenolic compounds like tyrosol and caffeic acid.  Both work as anti-inflammatory substances (preventing response to injury) as well as detoxifiers.  One writer described them as “cellular mops, essentially cleaning up and removing hazardous chemicals from the body.”

When tested in mice who were set up to stroke out (so sad), the ones who were ‘penetrated with Champagne extract’ were able to fight off damage significantly and, in fact, completely restored their brain cells with time.  Those who didn’t get a little boozy…vanished.

Not that I needed another excuse…but how great are these findings?!  Now there are more reasons to celebrate when raising a glass.

Salud!

Sites Referenced:

http://www.streetdirectory.com/food_editorials/beverages/alcoholic_drinks/health_benefits_of_champagne.html

http://blogcritics.org/scitech/article/champagne-on-the-brain-the-neurologic/

Champagne that’s worth it: the importance of small growers

Bubbles, french wine, organic wine

Champagne.  The word alone inspires a sense of pedigree, prestige and nobility.  Its history runs long, dating back to the first century.  It wasn’t until the seventeenth century, though, when, by accident, these still wines went through secondary fermentation during a journey to Spain and Portugal. Alas, the bliss of bubbles was born.

No matter the century, Champagne’s allure and acknowledged exceptional status has wavered little.  It was the choice juice for the Eucharist in the early part of the millennium, the privileged liquid to anoint and initiate royalty, and it danced in the glasses of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and fellow ex-pats during the American prohibition years as they sipped their way through Europe.  No other bubbly has ever been held in such universal high regard.

Even so, this pricey piece of perfection has recently been losing favor in hard times.  Cava, Prosecco, and domestic sparkling sales are gaining strength, and less people can afford to taste the difference.  This is not so much an argument against alternative bubbles.  There are some incredible buys out there for everyday sipping or if you’re on a party budget, such as Gruet Blanc de Noirs ($15), Il Follo Prosecco ($12), Marques de Gelida Cava ($16), Schramsberg Mirabelle ($20), Vigna Dogarina Prosecco ($20) and the Bortolomiol Proseccos ($15-50).  Unfortunately, the high price of Champagne has kept this elite wine exclusively in the glasses of the elite now arguably moreso than ever.  And as a result, sales have plummeted.

Let’s face it.  The unnecessary expenses are the first thing to go during economic crisis.  Fifty to one-hundred dollar bubbles are hard to justify.  Especially when the quality of Champagne has grown more questionable…

I recently took a seminar on ‘recoltant-manipulants’, or ‘small grower’ Champagnes, particularly those coming from the importer Terry Theise.  I was fascinated to learn that maybe people were right—most Champagne is overpriced.  Not because good Champagne isn’t worth a few extra bucks, rather because well-made bubbles are getting harder to find.

To put it in perspective, 80% of the Champagne produced comes from negociants or cooperatives (this includes many big houses like Dom, Krug, Moet, and Veuve).  This 80%, however, only owns 12% of Champagne’s vineyards.  How then, you might wonder, does this work?  Well, the majority of these houses buy their juice ‘sur latte,’ meaning they purchase the wine once the process is almost complete.  They alter a couple things, maybe add some sugar, acid, or yeast strains, disgorge it, bottle it, slap on a label, and sell it as their own.  The goal is mass production (and reproduction of a formulaic style year after year in order to make their wine distinctive from the others).

Small growers, conversely, are made in individual villages, from local parcels of land.  As such, they taste of that land and are handled in a more delicate, meticulous way.  Yields are kept low, allowing each grape to receive the attention it deserves to be worth the price you pay.  It becomes a work of art for the grower, and although they are not the wealthiest of farmers, they are proud to be creating one of the most intellectual, fascinating wines in the world.

At this seminar, we were challenged to a blind tasting.  Six Champagnes lined up.  Three were recoltant-manipulant (small grower) wines, and three were negociant.  Not only did I peg them accurately, but the majority of those in my seminar were able to taste the difference.  The negociant wines had too much sulfur, imbalanced sugars and acids, and an emptiness about them.  They lacked character.  These included Veuve, Moet, and Nicolas Feullat.  It wasn’t even that they were ghastly, but I never would have wanted to pay $40-50 for any of them.  The small grower Champagnes, on the other hand, were layered and complex.  They shimmered with minerality and kicked up flavors and aromas that I have had little experience with in other wines.  They were memorable.

I was fortunate to try many small grower wines that day.  There were a range of prices, but none were over-priced.  My favorite was probably quiet, elegant Vilmart & Cie ‘Grand Cellier’ Brut NV ($75).  However, it was not far ahead of the Gaston Chiquet ‘Tradition’ Brut NV ($47), which displayed bright raspberry and blueberry notes, as well as the mustier, mineral-kissed Geoffrey Expression Brut ($55).  For a more affordable holiday option, we began the seminar with the Aubry Brut NV ($40), which carried a heavy amount of Pinot Meunier and gave off a lovely aroma of apples, pear, and light citrus tones.  There is also the Chartogne Taillet Cuvee St. Anne ($43), a wonderful bubbly for the price.  In this selection, you will find a certain mustiness to it along with dried apple skins and a touch of hazelnuts.  It is incredibly focused and well structured.

Don’t give up on Champagne, undoubtedly still the most complex, age worthy, thought-provoking form of bubbles.  Just be sure to try one from a smaller grower (look for ‘RM’ on the front labels near all the confusing numbers—negociants are indicated by ‘NM’).  In fact, try one alongside a big house bubbly.  Your pennies are valuable.  So is your palate.  Let economic downturn teach you something.  Namely, how to spend wisely.

South American sparkling? What a refreshing idea…

Bubbles

When my colleague approached me one day and said he had some sensational South American bubbly he wanted to try me on, I read his face searching for slightest sign of sarcasm or wile.  After a second, I knew he was serious.  Well, of course, I would be delighted to try them immediately.  I didn’t doubt South America’s potential, but to date, I had not tried anything that made a place for itself in my memory.

A few days later, he presented a white and a rosé from Bodega Cruzat. Both fell out of the traditional French winemaking method—Méthode Champenoise.  Therefore, they were first made into fairly complex still wines, each seeing time on their lees and developing layers of personality for almost two years if not more before moving into their next phase: bubble production.  This comes as a result of adding a sugar yeast mixture—also known as the ‘liqueur de tirage’—to the bottle. The bottles are then resealed and placed on racks, where there are carefully shaken and turned (known as ‘riddling’) every couple days over the course of many weeks, even months.  They eventually go from a horizontal position to one that is vertical.  Once this is complete, the sediment and dead yeast cells that have gathered into the neck are ‘disgorged’ by way of freezing the bottles.  Afterwards, a ‘dosage’ of reserve wine is added to top it off, determining its sweetness level (Nature, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-Sec).  Finally, the bottle is sealed for good and aged a while longer if the fruit can withstand the wait.

Cruzat’s fruit can.  In fact, Cruzat typically sees anywhere from four to six years from harvest to market.  I say Cruzat like this is one person’s venture, but it is really the conglomeration of several partners’ dreams realized.  The man responsible for the product?  Well, that’s Argentina’s genius sparkling winemaker Don Pedro Rossell.  He is a veteran in Mendoza, and he insists upon telling the world of its terroir through the finest of sparkling wine.  In fact, that is the sole focus of Bodega Cruzat, a respected rarity in this region.

The 2004 Cruzat Brut was surprisingly rich and mouthfilling.  It sang of light citrusy lemon notes and toasty almond crunch.  It wore acid with vigor and confidence.  And it demanded a meal.  Particularly, it longed for food with substance.  Perhaps white fish draped in beurre blanc, buttery lobster, or clams with white cream sauce.  I think it could possibly even handle something as weighty as chicken in a lighter lemon pepper marinade.

The 2004 Cruzat Rosé, though, was my favorite.  Perhaps I am just a sucker for that pretty pink hue.  Especially this one.  It almost seemed tangled in a silver string, shimmering from every angle.  And it was so…quiet.  It nearly seemed to hold its breath in anticipation for what I can only wonder.  The fruit was pronounced but polite, distinct but delicate.  It consists of 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay–a classic Champagne marriage.  It was not only competitive with other rosé bubbles in its class but arguably better at a mere $20.

And so, that’s Argentina’s answer to sparkling.  In my humble opinion, I think they are onto something…