Champagne Friday: MONTSARRA Brut Cava, NV

WELL,it is Friday but this is little “c” rather than big “C” champagne. Which is to say that it is not real Champagne but rather Cava from Spain. Even though they can no longer use the term, Cava producers utilize the methode champenoise (the classic Champagne process) in producing their wines. As Cava producers go, Montsarra is on the small side and as smaller Cava producers go, on the traditional side in that they use only the three classic native varieties (Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo) rather than adding in Chardonnay and even Pinot Noir.

MONTSARRA Brut, Cava (Spain), NV ($17)

A blend of 65% Macabeo, 17.5% Parellada, and 17.5% Xarel-lo grown on a 99 acre estate near Torrelles de Foix in the classic Penedes part of the larger (and non-contiguous) Cava zone, fermented using methode champenoise, and aged 18 months on the lees in the bottle before disgorging. Finished at 12% AbV.   Sensory: Medium straw in color and fully sparkling; dry, medium-bodied with fresh acidity.  Clean but classic Cava offering toasty-yeasty notes with some mineral earth supporting citrus and an essence of earthy red fruit. Has a welcome richness and enough weight to accompany food. Think of Montsarra as the entry level to “top tier” Cava; it is way past the high-volume mass market offerings that come in black bottles or sport fake French names. 90+. We have often enjoyed this with a range of tapas and recently had a bottle with grilled lamb served over a hearty spinach-and-spring-mix salad with red grapes, blue cheese, and black walnuts.

Wine of the Week: OPUS ONE 2009

OPUS is a consistent personal favorite Napa Valley Cabernet-based red. It fits in with my other favorites such as Araujo, Quintessa, Dunn, Snowden, Oakville East, Kenefick, Shafer, The Fourteen, Reynold’s Family Reserve, etc. in that the flavor of ripe (but not over-ripe) Cabernet comes through with its tobacco, cedar, black pepper nuance intact. It does not taste of chocolate or chocolate syrup. It is elegant, balanced, and has the acidity to go the distance. This is what Cabernet-based Napa Valley red wine is all about and what current wave of ripeness and extraction hounds have gotten too far away from. If this is old school, I guess that makes me an old school kind of guy. Oh, and I’ll take that steak to go with it rare-to-medium-rare with a nice crust on it.

OPUS ONE, Napa Valley, 2009  ($205)

A blend of 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Cabernet Franc, 6%, Petit Verdot, 3% Merlot, and 1% Malbec macerated for 20 days (including fermentation) and aged 17 months in all new French oak barrels.  Bottled un-fined at 14.5% AbV one year prior to release. Sensory: Deep-purple-black in color with well formed legs that stain the glass; dry, medium-full-bodied with a fresh balance and chewy but well-integrated phenols (tannins).   Supple, juicy, beautifully balanced. Offers red and black fruit with notes of tobacco, spice, black pepper, cedar. Dusty oak and earth. Lovely integration. Elegant. Rich but very approachable with a classic dusty feel in the mouth. YUM. 97+. In the short term, a splash through a decanter wouldn’t do it any harm. Neither would serving it in large glasses that allow for some vigorous swirling. Longer term, this 2009 Opus is a wine with a demonstrated track record that will easily repay aging for twenty or more years.

Champagne Friday: DOM PERIGNON Oenotheque Brut Champagne, 1996

Riedel Vinum Riesling Glass

WHAT DOES IT TAKE to reduce three grown men with over 80 years of wine trade and tasting experience to giggling like a trio of tippling teenagers? Maybe it takes what may be the best bottle of Champagne I have ever tasted – Dom Perignon Oenotheque 1996. Back on October 5th of 2012, Wayne Hannah of Glazer’s, Robert Gilroy of LVMH, and I were tasting in my office when Robert opened and poured a bottle of Dom Perignon Oenotheque 1996 into Riedel Vinum Grand Cru Riesling glasses (which are both my standard tasting glass and my favorite for drinking vinous Chamapgne). I picked up the glass and tasted it and … nothing. The fizzy gold-leaning-toward-bronze liquid in the glass showed me nothing. The nose was completely closed and the first taste was just wet. I looked over at Robert who had just tasted the wine and he had a horrified look on his face. Rather than saying anything, I gently swirled the wine in my glass (yes, you can swirl Champagne). When I tasted it again, it was better. Actually it was excellent and it quickly moved to outstanding. After maybe five minutes, all three of us were giddy over how good it was. And we stayed giddy as we kept coming back to it as we tasted several other wines. Is this the best Champagne I’ve ever tasted? I can’t remember another that was better. This is a Champagne worthy of decanting.

DOM PÉRIGNON OENOTHÈQUE BLANC, Champagne, 1996  ($370.00 – price corrected down from $670)  

Tech Note: 12.5% Alcohol. The blend is unnpublished but the producer notes that typically, there is “a commensurate amount of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in any given year of Dom Perignon.” Whatever the blend, the cuvee was aged 15 years on the yeasts before disgorment and finishing.     Sensory Note: pale-gold-straw in color,  and  with sparkling; dry, medium bodied with fresh acidity and minimal phenolics.    Pale gold color. Starts with nothing and then … WOW!. Changes in the mouth with richness and flavor added to richness. The color actually lightened in the glass after it was poured. Has the minerality of a grand cru chablis along with lemony citrus and darker red fruit. The complex and complete flavors come in waves. Super length with the toasty Champagne character completely integrated. Stunning. This is Champagne as WINE and really outstanding wine at that. Drink this from wine glasses rather than flutes or tulips. Consider decanting it.  BS: 100.

Champagne Quote: (I never imagined I would use this one but it seems appropriate.)

I am drinking the stars. – attributed to Dom Perignon

Wine of the Week: EXPRESSION 44° Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills (Oregon), 2010

So last night at dinner at Charivari, we (that would be me and 33 of my nearest and dearest)  tasted (OK, drank) ten different wines. I really liked nine of them – and the tenth wasn’t bad but it wasn’t showing nearly as well as it should have. The one that really stood out for me was the 2010 EXPRESSION 44° Pinot Noir  from the Eola-Amity Hills area of the Willamette (remember it’s “Will-am-it, Damn it”) Valley in Oregon. It was perfect with an elegant duck leg and wilted grains. The pairing made me think of Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing. This wine would be brilliant. Now, if only I can finish with my Turkey as moist as that duck leg. At least I know that with this Expression 44°, the wine will be perfect.

EXPRESSION 44° Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills (Oregon), 2010 ($41)

Tech: 13.9% Alcohol.  100% Pinot Noir (whole berries with some whole clusters) given a seven day cold soak before fermentation (open tops with punch-downs and some pump-overs) and aging 11 months in all French oak barrels (no new barrels).   Sensory: Medium-red-purple in color with well formed legs; dry and medium-bodied with refreshing acidity.  Supple with lots of ripe red and some black mostly cherry fruit accented with earth and mocha with notes of black pepper and subtle oak. Very tasty and easy to drink. Elegant, Alive, Delicious. BS: 92+. Perfect delicious wine to pair with, you know, that bird.

Champagne Friday: GOSSET Brut Excellence

A few weeks back, I tasted Gosset Brut Excellence and thought “This is a winner.” Last weekend, it was. A winner that is. Gosset Brut Excellence won the award (a pair of chaps) for the top Sparkling wine in the 2013 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo International Wine Competition. The chaps come in addition to the Class Champion belt buckle and Double Gold medal it had already won. A winner indeed. My note from a few weeks back:

GOSSET Brut Excellence, Champagne, NV ($41)
Tech: 12% Alcohol. A blend of 45% Pinot Noir, 36% Chardonnay, and 19% Pinot Meunier sourced primarily from Grand and Premier Cru vineyards. Gosset bases this blend on three vintages and then adds 20% reserve wines (wines aged in a sort of solera with many vintages blended together). The wine spends over 2.5 years en tirage (resting on the lees before disgorging). Sensory: Medium straw in color with a hint of green highlights. Dry, light-to-medium-bodied with crisp acidity and scant phenolics. Focused, classy, classic, and delicious. Tart lemon-citrus fruit with some some subtle red fruit notes along with lots of toast and a lot of minerals. Fine style. Gets richer and more satisfying as it warms and flattens (which I like very much). Delicious. BS: 92.

This week’s CHAMPAGNE QUOTE: “One holds a bottle of red wine by the neck, a woman by the waist, and a bottle of champagne by the derriere.” – Mark Twain

Thanksgiving Malaise … but the show must go on

I’m thankful for lots of things. I am thankful for the food and wine I eat and drink, the home I live in, the peace and prosperity I enjoy. I am thankful for my job at Spec’s, the church I attend, for my friends and family, for my freedom. And I am thankful for the coming holiday meal or meals but I just can’t do it. I just can’t write another article extolling the virtues of pairing this wine or that with the Thanksgiving meal.

In 2011, I wrote about pairing Champagne and Bordeaux with a wine tailored version of the traditional feast. In 2010, I wrote about pairing Beaujolais (specifically the top Beaujolais-Villages and Cru wines from the excellent 2009 vintage) with the Thanksgiving feed. Before that, it seems like I wrote something each year recommending Riesling and Pinot Noir. It’s not that I don’t like Beaujolais or Champagne or red Bordeaux anymore. Perish the thought. Nor is it that I somehow don’t like Riesling and Pinot anymore. I do still like them and I will be drinking them this year on Thanksgiving. It’s just that I feel like I have said (or at least written) whatever I have to say (at least for now) on the topic of pairing wine with the various variations of the traditional Thanksgiving meal.

So one more time, with feeling: Riesling is a great match for Thanksgiving appetizers and Pinot Noir is the best wine to pair with turkey (whether roasted or deep fried in peanut oil). Amen. Please pass the gravy.

For my 2011 Champagne and Bordeaux Thanksgiving article, please go to None of my previous Thanksgiving efforts are still archived on the Spec’s website so I’m including and update of one below.


Giving Thanks and Drinking Wine (Updated)

This time of year reminds me that I have a lot to be thankful for. While I don’t think of it everyday, I live in good health and enjoy peace and prosperity. I enjoy my family and friends and have a lot of them. I have a great job. I enjoy the freedom to live where and as I want and the freedom to worship as I see fit. I am thankful for the wine I get to drink. I have much to be thankful for and, apparently so do many of my friends and customers. They are already asking me “What wines are you drinking for Thanksgiving?” The general answer is the same every year but the details change. Before I get into the specifics of the answer, let’s look at the challenge of the Thanksgiving meal.

Thanksgiving is the most American of all our holidays and its attendant feast may be the most American of all meals. The holiday comes down to us from the some of our earliest European settlers. The feast is traditionally centered on the turkey (which Ben Franklin thought should have been our national bird) but offers a place for new foods from the many cultures feeding into the American melting pot. Every year, this Thanksgiving feast presents lovers of food and wine with a dilemma. Do we dial back the wine and let the traditional foods shine? Or do we dial back some of the tradition to make the meal more wine friendly? Is there middle ground?

For some wine lovers, the holiday is a chance to bring out their best wines and dazzle their friends, whether casual wine drinkers or fellow aficionados. As satisfying as this can be, there is also the potential for real disappointment if the wine and food don’t pair well or if the treasured bottle is overwhelmed by a traditional menu.

For many families, the traditional Thanksgiving foods are sacrosanct. Aunt Betty’s sweet-and-sour-jalapeno-pickles HAVE to be on the table along with Grandma’s buttered-mashed-yams-with-bananas-honey-and-marshmallows. Of course, these accompany Uncle Bubba’s Cajun fried turkey (“Kids – keep your distance from both Uncle Bubba and the fryer”) with oven-baked jalapeno-oyster-cornbread stuffing and a dozen or so other exotic must-have dishes. How do you pair wine with all that?

In most every Thanksgiving tradition, the turkey is the centerpiece of the meal. By itself, a properly roasted Turkey doesn’t cause any wine pairing problems. It tastes great with almost everything from light fruity whites to the fullest-bodied Chardonnays, and from the lightest, fruitiest reds (such as Beaujolais) to an elegant, perfectly-aged red Bordeaux. Season that simple roast turkey with certain spices or push a typical Italian basil-and-pine-nut-pesto between the skin and the meat and you narrow the wine field a bit. The same is true of that flavor-injected, Cajun-seasoned, deep-fried turkey. Add regional stuffing variations and the typical side dishes that grace many Thanksgiving tables and the difficulties are compounded. Many of the traditional garnishes and relishes include salty, vinegary, and/or pickled flavors. Candied yams and cranberry sauce are each sweet enough to cause lots of wine problems. While I never have figured out which wine goes best with deviled eggs, I still eat ‘em.

Add to all-of-the-above the fact that Thanksgiving has become a melting pot holiday. As cultural traditions from family and friends are merged into the traditional Thanksgiving celebration, Cajun, Italian, Mexican, African, and Asian seasonings, flavors, and techniques are finding a place as part of this most American feast. Fish sauce finds its way into the marinade. Mole may appear as a sauce for the turkey. Chiles grace the table and may be included in recipes. Pot-stickers, spring rolls, piroshki, egg rolls, or empanadas are as likely as boiled shrimp or deviled eggs to appear as appetizers. Anyone up for Jamaican-jerked-turkey?

Two more challenges to consider: Many who enjoy wine with their Thanksgiving dinner only occasionally drink wine (and may not be used to drinking really dry wines at all). And some (many?) turkeys are, regrettably, a bit dry by the time they’re served. It’s also good to remember that at this meal, perhaps more than any other, the traditional foods (from whatever traditions) really are the stars. In most cases, the wine – however good it may be – is in at best a co-star and is more likely playing a supporting role.

So, what’s a wine lover to do? The way I see it, we have three choices. A food and wine free-for-all with no real plan is the easiest … and you might get lucky. In this case, serve the wines you and your family and friends most like to drink on an everyday basis and let the chips fall where they will. Chances are most people will enjoy the food and the wine – but there will be only a limited possibility for the thrill of a great match.

The second choice is for one person to control all the food choices so that everything works well with the sort of wine served. If a treasured bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon or red Bordeaux is the desired accompaniment, a simple roast bird seasoned with olive oil, rosemary, and a hint of garlic and served with a savory bread pudding (in lieu of soggy stuffing), mashed potatoes, turkey gravy, and a simple green bean dish will do admirably. But beware the cranberry sauce, yams, assorted pickles (I love pickled baby corn at Thanksgiving), Cajun spice, or jalapeno cornbread stuffing. This option may work best for a smaller celebration or for another meal besides the Thursday Thanksgiving feast. It is how I plan my normal dinner parties – but Thanksgiving is a bit different.

The third choice is my favorite: Turn everyone loose to contribute and create. Have a bird or two or three at the center of things and combine it all with a range of wines designed to refresh and accompany the broadest possible range of flavors. Some years back, I hosted a Thanksgiving meal where we had twenty-seven adults (family, friends, and strays) and a double handful of kids in one house.  Guests originated from various parts of the US as well as Mexico, Vietnam, China, Russia, and the Middle East – and they all contributed to the mix of food on the table. Our appetizers included lobster and scallop pot-stickers, piroshki, a multi-layered Tex-Mex dip, boiled shrimp, and baked oysters. For the main course, we had a roast turkey, a deep-fried turkey, and a roast goose. I lost track of how many side dishes both traditional and nontraditional were offered.  It was a riot of flavor and fun. And the wines were good.

To get down to specifics for this year:  At our house, we are going to drink Riesling and Pinot Noir this Thanksgiving (but more than one of each). The Rieslings will be served starting about 10:30AM while the cooking and pre-lunch nibbling is going on. We will continue to offer them through lunch to those who are so inclined but I will switch over to Pinot Noir as soon as I begin to carve the bird. While I like Zinfandel and Syrah, my number one choice for red wine with Turkey is Pinot Noir.

For Thanksgiving dinner, super depth and complexity are not necessary; maximum versatility and an invitingly comfortable, even “glug-able” character with lots of fruit are required.  The key to success is lots of fruit and flavor and little, if any, obvious oak character. Fruit and a hint (or more) of sweetness helps offset any spice and makes a better match with any smoky, sweet, and/or vinegary dishes. As tannic and/or oaky wines generally clash with salt, smoke, peppery spice (other than black pepper), and chilies so, I avoid most Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and oak-influenced Chardonnay. Fresh, fruity flavors allow the food to shine and serve to refresh the palate so I generally serve younger wines at Thanksgiving.

So what am I having? Here’s my Thanksgiving wine shopping list.

Donnhoff Estate Riesling of Donnhoff Kreuznacher Krotenpfuhl Riesling Kabinett 2011
Chateau Ste. Michelle – Dr. Loosen “Eroica” Riesling Washington State 2011
Kesselstatt Estate Riesling Qba 2011
Prinz Su Salm “Two Princes” Riesling QbA 2010
Schloss Vollrads Riesling Qba 2010
Selbach Riesling QbA 2010

Talmadge Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands 2008
Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir Santa Barbara 2009
Routestock Pinot Noir Oregon 2009
Healdsburg Ranches Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2010
Evesham Wood Pinot Noir Willamette 2010
Henri de Villamont Savigny les Beaune “Clos des Guettes” 1er Cru 2010
Remoissenet Beaune-Greves 1er Cru 2008

And of course we will need some BUBBLY:
Marniquet Brut Tradition Champagne NV
Montsarra Cava Brut (Spain) NV
Gruet Blanc De Noir Sparkling (New Mexico) NV
Varichon & Clerc Blanc de Blancs Brut Sparkling (Savoie, France) NV

A Thanksgiving Blessing

Lord God, Heavenly Father we bless You and thank You for this food and this wine which You have given us to nourish our bodies and make glad our hearts. We thank You for our families, our friends, and our freedoms. We thank You for this day of rest and reflection. And we thank You for the peace and prosperity that we enjoy in the midst of an often chaotic world. Grant us Your comfort, Your strength, and Your Peace. All of this we pray in the name of Your Son our savior Jesus. Amen.

Numanthia Tasted and Drunk

Wind blown old vine growing in the deep sands of Toro

Back on October 5, I tasted the three wines from the Numanthia Winery in Toro (Spain). In ascending order of price and quality, they are Termes, Numanthia, and Termanthia. Last night (11/14/2012), I got to drink these same wines and a couple more with dinner. When I tasted them in my office, we tasted out of excellent tasting glasses (Riedel Vinum Riesling Grand Cru which I use for virtually all of my extensive in-office tasting as well as for my everyday glass at home). Last night at dinner, we were drinking out of Riedel Vinum Bordeaux glasses. In my office, the Numanthia wines followed three amazing Tete de Cuvee Champagnes: Dom Perignon “Oenotheque” 1996, Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 1998, and Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 1992. Last night the Numanthia wines followed an aperitif of Krug Grand Cuvee.

Here are my notes from October and from last night.

TERMES, Toro, 2009  ($26.00)
In my office: Tech: 14.5% Alcohol. 100% Tinta de Toro (which may or may not be Tempranillo) fermented using pump-overs and aged 14 months in French oak barrels (20% new) and bottled without filtration or fining. The unique vineyards feature un-grafted vines planted in deep sand. Average vine age is 30 years for Termes.     Sensory: Purple in color with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with balanced acidity; medium and chewy phenolics.  Dark earthy coffee scented Spanish red. Rustic, subtle leather and spice with a hint of cocoa. Somehow both fresh and rustic. MAybe best with simple grilled meats. BS: 90.
At Dinner: When compared side by side with three vintages of Numanthia, the Termes comes of as fresher and lighter, more open and quite ready to drink although it benefited from the larger glass and a fair amount of swirling. A rough decanting might have served it well. It stayed fresh for the whole two and a half hours we were at the table. Based on its performance last night, I’d bump the score to 91.

NUMANTHIA Toro, 2008 ($54.00)
In my office: Tech: 14.5% Alcohol. 100% Tinta de Toro from 20 hectares (50 acres) of 70 to 100 year old vines planted in deep sand. Fermented using pump-overs in temperature controlled stainless steel with malo-lactic fermentation in barrels during 18 months in 100% new French oak barrels. Bottled with no filtration or fining.   Sensory: Purple in color with well formed legs; dry, full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity.  Supple, rich, ripe. Spanish but with a decided new world bent. Rich leather. Supple. YUM. BS: 92.
At Dinner: Again, more open in the 25+ ounce capacity Bordeaux glass. The extra time in the glass and ability to swirl it up and let it open up really helped the wine show its stuff. At dinner we also drank the 1998 (the first vintage of Numanthia) and the 2007 out of magnum. The 1998 was drinking beautifully but had plenty of life left in it. The 2007 was drinking but took some time to open up into a truly delicious wine. The 2008 was very backward at first showing more tannins than anything else. While it is tight, it probably looked tighter in comparison to the other two vintages. By the end of the dinner, this 2008 had really come around. I’d also bump up my score here to 93. (Also, I’d score the 2007 at 94 points and the 1998 at 95+.)

TERMANTHIA, Toro, 2007  ($200.00)
In my office: Tech: 14.5% Alcohol. 100% Tinta de Toro from4.8 hectares (11 acres) of 120-plus-year-old vines. This gets a five day pre-fermentation maceration (aka a “cold soak”) in stainless steel before fermentation in French oak vats, plunged down by feet twice per day during the 10 days of fermentation followed by extended 14 day post fermentation maceration. Malolactic fermentation is in 100% new French oak Bordelaise barrels. Once malolactic fermentation is complete, the wine is transferred (racked) into other 100% new French oak barrels for 24 months of aging.    Sensory: Purple in color with well formed legs; dry, full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and quite chewy phenolics.  Super rich and chocolatey but in the best way. More black than red fruit with lots of extraction.  Notes of spice and subtle leather. Chewy, and somewhat rustic but with the elegance sand imparts and more. Distinctly Spanish but with echoes from Bordeaux and California. BS: 94+.
At Dinner: This massive extracted wine benefitted most from the larger glass but still needed more time to come around. As it was served later (the other four wines had been in the glasses on the table when we sat down), it had the least amount of time to breath and evolve. Nevertheless, it did open up in the glass. This is a monster big wine that reminds me of an Andalusian horse in that it offers both power and elegance. With food and in the bigger glasses with more time to both evaluate and appreciate, my score bumps up to at least 96. With more time, it may have gone higher than that. For me, this may be more of drinking wine than a dinner wine but I still think it would shine with braised beef short ribs or maybe a braised lamb shank.

All in all, a great opportunity and a very interesting chance to compare both the wines and the idea of tasting versus drinking.

Decanter Rules

IF YOU TALK TO THE WINE EXPERTS (that would be me and pretty much everyone else who thinks he is), at some point someone will tell you that you need to decant a particular wine. It might be a young red or an old red. It might even be a young white burgundy or, perhaps rather shockingly, an old bottle of Champagne. You will note that at the most basic level, there are two reasons to decant a wine: because it is young and because it is old. As you might guess, each gets different treatment.

Reidel Duck Decanter

Young wines are often decanted because the need air. The need air in the sense of oxygenation as opposed to oxidation (but of course too much oxygenation leads to oxidation. When many wines are young, they often show “tight” or “closed” which is to say that they don’t show much at all. They need aeration to help work some oxygen into the wine and allow the volatile gasses that make up aroma and flavor to emerge. You can achieve this through pouring the young wine into large glasses and swirling but enough swirling of this sort to really open up the wine can be tiresome. Rather than swirling in the glass, it can be better dump the bottle in to a large decanter where a large surface area allows a lot of air contact. The two most common vessels for this sort of decanting are Duck Decanters and Captain’s or Ship’s decanters. Both have large surface areas and each has it’s own advantages. Duck decanters are much easier to pour.

Bormioli Captain’s Decanter

Ship’s decanters can be swirled to further enhance the oxygenation of the wine they hold. Duck decanters are not at all suited for swirling. And Ship’s decanters can be awkward to pour, especially as you get toward the end of the wine. At home I sometimes use a simple one liter glass carafe as a decanter for a young red that needs a rough splash of oxygenation. The technique here is to pour the young wine (usually a red but a tight young Chardonnay from Burgundy’s Cote de Beaune or Chablis or even a top California Chardonnay such as Hanzell or Stony Hill can be a candidate) roughly into a large container with a bit of splashing. For a really young red, you might roll it from the first decanter into a second decanter for another splash of air. Then the wine can sit in the decanter breathing for another hour or more. (Please see below for a note on “breathing.”)

Older red wines need to be decanted not to add air but to remove sediment, or more precisely to move the wine off of the sediment. As red wines age, the phenols (tannins, anthocyans, flavonoids) polymerize (link up into molecular chains) which ultimately get too big to stay in suspension in the liquid and so precipitate out into a grainy or even gritty dark sediment or deposit. There is nothing wrong with this and it certainly won’t hurt you to ingest it but it is ugly in the glass and can cloud the wine if it is swirled up into it. And the texture in the mouth is not all that pleasant either. So it is best to decant older wines that have “thrown a sediment” in the bottle. Who are the candidates for decanting? Vintage Port and red Bordeaux are the first things that come to mind but any age-worthy red with eight or more years in the bottle can be a candidate. As these wines are older and have (we hope) developed with bottle age, the do not generally need any aeration. Some, especially wines based on Syrah and, to a lesser extent, Cabernet Sauvignon can be a bit “reduced” (Please see note below on Oxidation and Reduction) so they may need a little air to open up even after some years of aging but that aeration can generally be better gained in the glass rather than in the decanter.

Godinger Dublin Decanter

So how do you go about decanting an older wine? In addition to the bottle of older wine and a good corkscrew, you’ll need three things: an appropriately-sized decanter, a small flashlight, and a decanting funnel (not to be confused with an aerating funnel). An “appropriately sized decanter is one that closely approximates the capacity (if not the shape) of the bottle you are decanting. Ideally, you are decanting a 750ml bottle into a decanter that can hold a smidge more than 750ml. (A “smidge” is less than a “skosh” which in turn is less than a “bit.”  But I digress …) Use a single bottle decanter or, in a pinch, use an old clear wine or Champagne bottle. The small flashlight replaces the traditional candle on which I have occasionally singed a finger. A flashlight may lack the romance of a candle but a good one is brighter and more effective at showing you when the sediment begins to move in the bottle from which you are pouring. The proper decanting funnel has a crook at the end of the spout so as to guide the wine to the side of the decanter to run down to the bottom thus avoiding splashing and unwanted aeration. Someone decanting a particularly old bottle may want to first purge the air from the decanter by spraying in an inert gas mixture such as those found in “Private Preserve” or “Vineyard Fresh.” By replacing the air in the decanter with inert gas, you further reduce the possibility of oxidizing a precious older vintage.

If you know well in advance that you are going to open a particular bottle, stand it up for a day or even two before the big event. Even a couple of hours up right is a good thing. Ideally, this standing will take place in your temperature-controlled wine storage cabinet, closet, or cellar. When you stand the bottle up, be gentle and make note of which side of the bottle was down when it was laying in the rack, box, or bin. Just before you open the bottle, make sure the decanter is clean and dry with no off smells. If you are going to, now is the time to gas the decanter. Stand it up and then put the funnel into the mouth of the decanter. Now gently open the bottle taking special care with the cork. Generally, I prefer to use a “pull-tabs” corkscrew but when opening older wines I prefer the Screwpull waiter’s model. Whatever you do, don’t jar or knock around the bottle as you are likely to cloud the wine with too much movement. After the bottle is open, gently turn the bottle so that the side that was down in the rack is closest to the decanter. Now lift and gently, slowly, steadily pour the wine from the bottle into the decanting funnel as you shine the flashlight up from below the shoulder of the bottle to illuminate the wine as it passes. When sediment begins to move toward or into the neck of the bottle, you will see it. At that point, stop pouring and gently set the bottle down. If all went well, you have about 90% or more of the contents of the bottle in the decanter and the decanter is filled up into the neck. Now stopper the decanter and the wine is ready to be moved to the table or to a sideboard for service.

As to Champagne, why on earth would you decant Champagne? Well, it turns out that not everyone likes ALL that fizz and many may appreciate Champagne as much or more as a wine as they do as a sparkling wine. Gently decanting Champagne as described for aged reds above will reduce the fizz by 15 to 20% (but by no means eliminate it) and give the wine a chance to take on a bit of air and so open up which increases its “vinousity” or wine character. I don’t do it often (especially not at home as my wife is a fizz fan) but I have been known to decant champagne both young and old. One of my dirty little secrets is that I like my Champagne a bit less fizzy and a bit warmer (say 50-55°F) than the accepted norm. Decanting can help me get there.

Why decant? Because young or old, red, white, or sparkling, decanting can increase your enjoyment of the wines you drink. More wines will benefit from decanting than you may realize so it’s a good idea to keep a couple of basic decanters or even just a few clear empy bottle and glass carafes around. Just be sure to use the right size and shape decanter and the right technique for the age and type of wine you are preparing to enjoy.


The point of long bottle aging of certain wines (such as red Bordeaux and Burgundy, Vintage port, Northern Rhone Syrah, Chateauneuf du Pape, Rioja, and others) is to let them naturally develop from aromas to bouquet, from simple to complex, and from youthful freshness to fascinating maturity. These wines can be said to be age-worthy. Not all wines develop in this way and so these others should be drunk young. Also, we sometimes want to drink age-worthy wines before they are fully mature. In either case, young wines should be treated and served differently than mature wines.

Since these young wines have not had a chance to develop in the bottle, they will often benefit from air contact. Working air into a young wine, whether by an intentionally rough decanting, extended breathing, or swirling the wine in the glass allows the aromas and flavors to develop more than simply pouring the wine into the glass and tasting or drinking. As the wine is exposed to the air it develops and “opens up.” While this is the beginning stage of oxidation, many in the wine trade call this beneficial air exposure “oxygenation.”

For many younger wines, swirling the wine the glass may be sufficient. If the wine is particularly tight or very young, more vigorous swirling, a rough decanting, or an extended period of breathing – either in a decanter or in the glass – may be called for. More vigorous swirling is fine for tastings but may not be the best solution for a wine to be enjoyed at the dinner table.


When oxygen combines with compounds in wine, those compounds can pick up one or more oxygen atoms and become “oxidized”. These new compounds have different sensory characteristics. For example, when ethanol (the main alcohol found in wine) is oxidized it becomes acetaldehyde – which in turn can be oxidized to form acetic acid. Each smells different.

Similarly, polyphenols (tannins, anthocyans, and flavonoids) can be oxidized to quinones, and metals such as copper, iron, and manganese can be transformed from Cu+ to Cu2+, Fe2+ to Fe3+, and Mn2+ to Mn3+, respectively.

Reduction is the opposite of oxidation; it is a process whereby compounds lose oxygen atoms. Since wine fermention is an anaerobic process (without oxygen), a number of “reduced” compounds are produced. Reduced sulfur and nitrogen compounds such as hydrogen sulfide and mercaptans, are well-known for the negative “reduced” or “reductive” characteristics they give to wines. A little aeration after opening the bottle often cures what ails’em.


Gently decant them into a clean decanter or clean empty wine bottle. There are two types of decanters: those for aerating young wine and those for decanting older wines that would be damaged by aeration. If you use a decanter, use the kind for older wines. YOu do not want the decanted wine to have a large surface area.

Rinse the original bottle very thoroughly with cold water and thoroughly drain it.

With minimal splashing, return the decanted Port to its original bottle.

Pour the wine and then gas (with Private Preserve or other nitrogen and/or argon-based wine preservation gas) and stopper what is left in the bottle.

Or you can decant and then pour from and gas the decanter, as long as it has a stopper. Gassed and stoppered decanters can keep the Port as well as a gassed and stoppered bottle. Or, if you know you will drink half the bottle, you can fill (from the decanter) a half bottle and then gas and stopper it and save this half bottle for another day. As long as you gas the wine early and seal it, it will keep for at least a week. It will keep even better if you keep it in the refrigerator (but not in the door).

You can use these same techniques for decanting and preserving any bottle of wine. The key to success is to expose the wine to as little air as possible. Decant gently using a funnel that runs the wine down the side of the bottle rather than one that sprays the wine out. The truly concerned wine geek might gas the empty decanter before decanting to displace the air from the decanter to further diminish the effect of oxygen. It is best to use a decanter that will be filled into the narrow neck to minimize surface area where the wine can be in contact with air.

I’ve tried every other technique I have heard of to preserve opened wine. Gassing and refrigerating the wine is the way to go.

Champagne Friday: DELAMOTTE Brut Champagne NV

So I really tasted this Delamotte (actually drank two bottles) at dinner at Vietnam on 19th Street in the Heights with a group of friends on Thursday. And I know today isn’t Friday. It’s still (barely) Monday but a lot has happened in the mean time, such as the whole Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo International Wine Competition which I worked all day Saturday and Sunday. Sometimes life gets in the way but I am trying to post on a more regular basis. Any any case, this bubbly is worth the wait.

DELAMOTTE Brut, Champagne, NV
Tech Note: 12% Alcohol. A blend of 50% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir, and 20% Pinot Meunier with all of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes coming from Grand Cru vineyards. The Chardonnay comes primarily from Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Avize, and Oger. The Pinot Noir is from vineyards along side the Marne river in Bouzy, Tours-sur-Marne and Ambonnay. The Pinot Meunier comes from the Vallée de la Marne.  Delamotte uses no oak, allows three years on the lees, uses no particular yeast selection, and uses only a little reserve wine to guide the wine.      Sensory Note: pale straw in color. Dry, medium-plus-bodied with fresh acidity. Toasty, earthy, rich. Lots of feel and flavor in the mouth. Ripe citrus and some red fruit. Lovely Texture. Enough mineral but not over the top.     Bear Note: Really Delicious in a lovely, fresh but satisfying, more aperitif style. I can’t get enough of it. BS: 94. ($39.00)

Do yourself a favor and let it warm up and flatten out a bit in the glass for more richness and depth. Or even decant it into a large carafe before serving into wine (as opposed to Champagne) glasses.

A Champagne Quote:

Gentlemen, in the little moment that remains to us between the crisis and the catastrophe, we may as well drink a glass of Champagne. – Paul Claudel


CHARDONNAY. Perhaps no other word so divides the world of wine. It is the world’s most popular grape variety and maybe it’s most disdained. Almost 18 percent of ALL the wine Spec’s sells is labeled “Chardonnay.” Add in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Gris/Grigio and that number exceeds 50% of all wine Spec’s sells (figured by units sold). Even though Chardonnay soundly exceeds Cabernet Sauvignon’s slightly less than 14% of sales, that almost 18 percent Chardonnay number does not include all the Chardonnay from greater Burgundy that is sold with “place name” labels such as Pouilly-Fuisse, Macon-Villages, Chablis, Meursault, Rully, or Puligny-Montrachet. On the other hand, what other grape variety has inspired an “anti that variety” movement. Chardonnay has the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement. I guess “Don’t Drink Gruner Veltliner” or “Anything But Trebbiano” just don’t have the same ring. While Merlot took a bit of a bashing in Sideways, there is no active anti-Merlot movement.

Just about two years ago on the night before the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo’s ™ International Wine Competition judging, I asked all the judges and officials attending a pre-competition dinner when the last time each of them had bought, paid for, taken home and drank a bottle of wine labeled Chardonnay (not Pouilly Fuisse or Puligny Montrachet). Not one of them could remember. All of these people are either members of the wine trade or press or the most avid of consumers – and none of them drinks Chardonnay on any kind of a regular basis. These folks are the supposed “tastemakers” and “trend setters” – and they don’t drink Chardonnay. In fact, many of my fellow self-identified “wine geeks” disdain it.

So who is drinking all this Chardonnay? Well, a lot of people. Men and women in a complete spectrum of age ranges all drink Chardonnay. A certain group of women in the forty plus to almost sixty year old age range have self-identified as “Cougars” and have adopted a certain style of Chardonnay (aka “Cougar Juice”) as their drink of choice. La Crema Chardonnay (owned by Chardonnay behemoth Kendall Jackson) qualifies as Cougar Juice. Rombauer Chardonnay is the ultimate.

So what is it about Chardonnay? Chardonnay as made generally in the new world and specifically in California varies widely in style. To understand the range of styles, it helps to understand a bit about the process.

Chardonnay is a grape variety made famous by its use in Burgundy and in Champagne. It is now grown literally all over the world. It makes many of the worlds best white wines and some of its worst. Chardonnay lends itself to huge variety of styles. Winemakers like it because it is a blank canvas. Consumers often stick with it because it is comforting and familiar.

The winemaker’s first decision is when to pick. Does the winemaker want the grapes to be ripe (but with fresh acidity), riper (more alcohol and richness but with some freshness) of ripest, or ripest (lots of flavor development but with softer acidity but with the rick of oxidation and a possible lack of freshness and charm. Of course, later harvesting leads to more ripeness and ultimately higher alcohol in the finished wine.

Since Chardonnay is a white wine, the grapes are picked and then (generally) crushed and always pressed before fermentation. When the grapes come into the winery, they may be dosed with sulfur dioxide to kill any wild (or native) yeasts and bacteria or they may be left un-dosed to encourage a “natural” or “native yeast” fermentation. Most larger scale producers use SO2 so they can more closely control the process. Many artisan producers (including most of the better domaines in Burgundy) use natural fermentations. The producer may decide not to crush and de-stem and so do “whole cluster pressing” which can give a different character to the juice.

Once the juice has been liberated from the grapes, the winemaker must ferment it. Here he has to choose which vessel to use and at what temperature to proceed. Will he ferment in barrels or tanks. If barrels, will he use all new, some used and some older, or all used (aka “seasoned”) barrels? And what size? 225 litters is standard but some prefer larger barrels such as demi-muids (600 liters) for reduced wood effect. If tank, does he use steel, wood, or concrete? With both tanks and barrels, the winemaker must decided whether and how to manage temperature. Cooler temperatures for fermentation retain more fruit and freshness. Warmer temperature develop more flavor and richness but at the cost of some of the fruit. Some winemakers go for complexity by fermenting different lots in different vessels (say 40% barrel and 60% tank) and at different temperatures. If all this works, it is “artful winemaking”; if it doesn’t work, it is “needless manipulation” or winemaking of for the sake of winemaking.

Once the alcoholic fermentation (conversion of sugar converted into alcohol by yeasts) is complete. The winemaker must decide whether to allow malo-lactic (aka “ML”) fermentation (conversion of malic – apple – acid into lactic – milk – acid) to proceed, and if so, how far. Full malo-lactic will add richness and creaminess but a the cost of some fruit. No malo-lactic can yield a wine that is fresher and fruitier but not as rich and complex. Partial malo-lactic can split the difference. Chardonnays that have not undergone a full malo-lactic fermentation must be sterile filtered before bottling or risk completing malo in bottle, thus ruining the wine.

Once ML has been completed or avoided (usually by adding SO2 to the barrels or tanks of wine to kill the ML bacteria), the wine mus then be further aged before bottling. While it seems logical that barrel fermented wines should be aged in Barrels and tank fermented wines should be aged in tanks this is not always the case. Each producer makes his own decisions and takes his own chances. I have had perfectly fine wines that were barrel-fermented and tank-aged and vice versa.

While the wine is aging, the winemaker must decide whether to let the wine age on the lees (sur-lie aging) or deposit or to rack the wine off the lees into clean barrels or tanks. If he decides to leave the wine “on the lees,” he must decide whether and/or how often to “stir the lees” (aka batonage). The combination of sur-lie aging and batonnage can add lots of richness and texture to a Chardonnay but in combination with full barrel fermentation in new oak and full malolactic

Have you ever agonized over just when to take the cookies out of the oven? Some (many?) winemakers likewise agonize over when to take the wine out of barrels and tanks and but it into bottles.

“Winemaker A” may to choose to pick at earlier (just ripe but with lots of freshness), go with a whole cluster pressing, and then allow for a native ferment in temperature-controlled Stainless Steel before sulfuring to prevent ML before racking half the wine off the lees and into French oak barrels (33% new, 67% seasoned) for six months. The other half is left on the lees in tank where the wine is kept cold to retain as much freshness as possible while still picking up a little lees-y richness. The wine is then reintegrated in a large blending tank where it is sulfured for a final time, cold stabilized, and then bottled after a sterile filtration.  “Winemaker A” in following these steps will (best case scenario) make a fruit oriented, elegant, fresh, maybe even vivid wine. In the worst case, the wine could be lean and austere and maybe even green and under ripe.

Winemaker B may choose to pick later (at the ripest but lowest acid level), dose with SO2 to be able to better select yeasts and therefore better control fermentation, crush, de-stem, and press before fermenting and 12 months of aging in all new French oak barrels (225 litter) with full ML in the barrel before extended lees contact and regular batonage before racking, blending and bottling un-fined and un-filtered with no cold stabilization. This set of decisions will (best case scenario) yield a wine that is big and rich with lots of oak and  creamy-buttery character in the Rombauer Cougar Juice style. The worst case scenario is an expensive mess that tastes like everything but fruit. Many new world Chardonnay drinkers are so used to the taste of oak, lees, and ML, the can’t pick out the actual fruit flavor of Chardonnay. Which is too bad because, at least to me, the fruit flavors are the whole point of wine.

From a fruit standpoint, it may seem that our two examples above are not even made form the same grape variety. Obviously, there is a lot of middle ground between these two styles, just as there are even more extreme possibilities in both directions. The harvested grapes are the raw materials; all the rest of it is winemaking. Knowing how much “winemaking” you like is just as important as knowing whether or how much you like Chardonnay. Nevertheless, there are some markers for Chardonnay. Chardonnay may offer tree fruit (apple and sometimes pear), citrus (lemon and lime, rarely grapefruit), and tropical fruit (pineapple in large yields, mango in full ripeness), and often some sort of banana (from green plantains to yellow bananas turned fully brown). This fruit may be marked with (or even obliterated by) all of the winemaking above.

Chardonnay and Food

So lets say you have chosen a good bottle of Chardonnay from the middle ground. With what do you serve it. Many people drink Chardonnay as an aperitif in the same way they would formerly have drunk a cocktail. While I like Chardonnay, I’d rather have Champagne. Chardonnay can go will with chicken either roasted or fried (as long as the chicken is not too spicy). Chardonnay has a natural affinity for crab but crab is the only shell fish where I think Chardonnay first. Pairing Chardonnay with fish can be problematic because most chardonnays aged in oak barrels or in the presence of oak chips have at least some tannins (phenolic content) which can fight on the palate with the oils (fatty acids) found in fish. That’s why Chardonnay is sometimes called a “red wine masquerading as a white wine.” In any case, almost any good new world Chardonnay can be served with crab and especially crab-cakes (which, along with soft-shell, are my favorite). For richer fare try Chardonnay with pork or veal. For pork options, try a bone-in loin roast from the shoulder end (this is the pork equivalent of prime rib) or thick tomahawk rib chops or t-bone loin chops, A pork crown roast is a fancier presentation of that rib roast mentioned earlier. Veal can be presented in the same ways and is equally at home with Chardonnay. Chardonnay also likes mushrooms so the choice of sauce or dressing can be made by the most unlikely ingredients. Just medium Pork (the new USDA recommendation is and internal temperature of 145°F which is down hugely from the recommended 170*F internal temperature. Oakier Chardonnays can work with steaks. Un-oaked (aka “un-wooded”) Chardonnays can go with lighter seafood dishes and can even work with oysters – as does real French Chablis which is, of course, Chardonnay.

Riedel Vinum Pinot Noir Glass

But Wait! There’s More!

Although it often seems unlikely, some new world Chardonnay can age. Please note the qualifying words “some” and “can.” “Most” don’t. Age-worthy new world may be found by its acidity or freshness. Unless there is enough acidity to give Chardonnay (and almost any other wine) a firm backbone. Without that firm backbone, Chardonnay will not develop and/or improve. The highest levels of ripeness and malo-lactic fermentation work against the wines having enough acidity to age. And lees stirring and barrel fermentation can lead to enough oxygen exposure to make the wines early oxidizers which also works against age-worthiness.

I mentioned above that oak aged Chardonnay has been called “a red wine masquerading as a white wine.” This can seem even more true when you realize that some of the best Chardonnays – especially when young – can benefit from decanting. This is not a decanting to get the wine off the sediments but to oxygenate this younger wines to help them open up for drinking. The proper technique is to splash the wine into a carafe or a large surface area decanter to allow it to breath a bit before serving. How long depends on the wine and how young it is. If you taste a young Chardonnay that seems “closed” or too tight, you have a candidate for decanting.

Chardonnay can be served in a variety of glass sizes and shapes. Un-wooded types can be served in any good general white wine glass. I have and Use the Riedel Vinum Glass they call “Grand Cru Riesling.” Wooded versions can need a bigger glass with a larger surface area. At home, I like to use the Riedel Vinum “Red Burgundy” glass for its large surface area, capacity (which helps with swirling), and acute chimney to help concentrate the aromas. Remember to never fill any wine glass more than 1/3 full and ¼ might be a better goal with most larger glasses.

Riedel Vinum Riesling Glass

New World Chardonnay can run from $2.99 per bottle to as much as a couple of hundred dollars. The lower priced versions are the best sellers but there are some good sellers at higher prices. Spec’s (and everyone else’s) best selling Chardonnay is Kendal Jackson Vintner’s Reserve at about $10. By the way, if you like KJVR as it is widely known, you might try KJ Avant Chardonnay as a less-woody alternative. It makes an interesting comparison. Chardonnay under $10 accounts for almost 1.2 million bottle of Spec’s sales. Chardonnay priced at $10 to $15 accounts of another 500,000 plus bottles. Chardonnay $15 to $20 accounts for another 150,000 plus bottles. The $20 – $30 range adds another 76,000 bottles. The over $30 – $40 range adds another 43,000 bottles. Chardonnay over $40 adds another roughly 17,000 bottles. Notice a trend here? Each price point very roughly represents a halving of sales.

I like Chardonnay. I don’t drink as much as I’d like because my lovely wife and most of my wine geek friends (yes, I too am a wine geek) don’t. However, for most simple pork veal, or crab dishes, there is little that works better. Great Chardonnay can be thrilling and complex and completely hold your attention. Yes, there is a lot of plonk out there with Chardonnay on the label. Don’t be fooled. Find and stick to the good stuff and you to will enjoy Chardonnay.

SPEC’s Top Chardonnay Sellers by Price (in descending order)

Over $40.00 per bottle

Far Niente

Newton Unfiltered

Ch. Montelena

Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch

Paul Hobbes Russian River

Kistler Sonoma Mountain

$30 – $40

Rombauer (The Ultimate Cougar Juice)


Grgich Hills


Ramey Russian River

Ferrari Carano Reserve

$20- $30

Ferrari Carano


Mer Soleil




$15 – $20

Sonoma Cutrer Sonoma Coast

Sonoma Cutrer Russian River

Cru Montage

Newton Red Label


Deloach Russian River

$10 – $15

La Crema Sonoma Coast

Mondavi Woodbridge (in Magnums)


Napa Landing

Franzia (5 liter bag in a box)


Kendal Jackson Grand Reserve

Almaden (5 liter bag in a box)

Toad Hollow

Oak Grove

Less than $10.00

Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve (KJVR)


Clos du Bois North Coast

Ste. Genevieve (in Magnums and from Texas)

J. Lohr Riverstone

Hess Select

Yellowtail (in Magnums and from Austrailia)

Lindemans Bin 65 (in Magnums and from Australia)

Ch. Ste. Michelle (from Washington State)

My New World Chardonnay Shopping List

Anything from Patz & Hall

Anything from Ramey

Anything from Ridge

Hanzell (and Hanzell Sebella)

Anything that says “Hyde Vineyard” on the labels

Anything from Dumol

Mount Eden Estate

Talbott Sleepy Hollow

Morgan Santa Lucia

Rodney Strong Chalk Hill

Expression 38 Gap’s Crown

Lymar Russian River


Mer Soleil Silver

Healdsberg Ranches Russian River

Talbott Logan

Byron Santa Barbara

My New World Chardonnay Bucket List

Ridge Montebello

Hyde Vineyard Chardonnays from Patz & Hall, Kistler, Ramey, Auteur, and Hyde de Villaine.

Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay from Ramey or Paul Hobbes

Everything from Hanzell