Wine-Of-the-Week: BODEGAS VOLVER Tempranillo, 2011

The web-site says “… a project developed and co-owned by Jorge Ordoñez and Rafael Cañizares.” I generally hate “projects.” When a  winemaker or wine salesman says he has a new “project,” it usually means he is working some kind of deal where “… we can make 8,000 cases of Cabernet that you can sell at $19.99 with good margins …” at which point I have already tuned out. There is usually a friend’s vineyard and a “virtual winery” or custom crush facility involved. Blah, blah, blah … Well, it seems that this is different. Bodegas Volver is an actual winery on a 247 acre vineyard site in La Mancha. Winery and vineyard are owned by winemaker Rafael Cañizares and wine salesman Jorge Ordonez. A real winery with real estate vineyards with a real (and talented) winemaker working in tandem with a knowledgable sales and marketing guy seems like more than a “project.”

BODEGAS VOLVER Tempranillo, La Mancha, 2011 ($13.49)VolverTempranillo
15% Alcohol. Estate-bottled, dry-farmed 100% Tempranillo from a single 72 acre vineyard (Finca Los Juncares) planted in 1957 on sand-over-clay-over-chalk yielding as little as 2 lbs. of grapes per vine. Malolactic fermentation and 18 months aging in all new French oak barrels before it is bottled unfiltered.   Purple in color with well-formed legs; dry, medium-full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium-chewy phenolics.  Rich, ripe, and rounded with dark red fruit and notes of tobacco and subtle leather. Lovely freshness. Hints at garrigue. Fine old-world steak wine. BS: 90+.

Thinking about Wine:
Beer is made by men, wine by God. – Martin Luther

PLEASE check the EVENTS PAGE for my upcoming WINE 101 class beginning January 6th at the Wine School and the annual 2011 CRU CLASSÉ BORDEAUX TASTING on January 21st at the Crystal Ballroom at the Rice.

Wine-Of-the-Week: PRE SEMELE Sancerre 2012

It seems like the wrong time of year to be touting a Sancerre but this is Texas where I have gotten sunburned and a bit over-heated while riding my horse wearing a Hawaiian shirt in January. So consider the weather and remember it for a balmy day.semele-sancerre-chasseignes-lg

DOMAINE DU PRE SEMELE Sancerre Blanc, Loire, 2012
12.5% Alcohol. 100% sustainably grown Sauvignon Blanc (5-40 year-old-vines) from both clay (giving fruit) and limestone (giving mineral and structure) terroirs. After a slow gentle pressing, the juice is settled for 24 hours at cold temperatures before a cool fermentation in temperature contolled stainless steel and enamel tanks for 10-15 days. No malo-lactic fermentation but some lees stirring. Remains in tank for 6 months before a light filtration and bottling.   Straw in color with good legs; dry, medium-light-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and scant phenolics. Clean and crisp and full of mineral with lemony, fresh citrus fruit. Is actually more complex than it sounds but it is still young and a bit tight. Nevertheless, this is fine refreshing Sancerre and the producer has a great track record. BS: 91 (or maybe more as it opens up). Drink it at dinner with fresh oysters or fish. Or on the porch with conversation and chips.

Thinking About Wine:
Wine is sunlight held together by water” – Galileo Galilei

PLEASE check the EVENTS PAGE for my upcoming WINE 101 class beginning January 6th at the Wine School and the annual 2011 CRU CLASSÉ BORDEAUX TASTING on January 21st at the Crystal Ballroom at the Rice.

Oh no! Not Another Learning Opportunity!

Actually not one but two learning opportunities await below.

The best way to learn about wine is to taste and here are two opportunities to taste a lot of wine. The first is a four night (spread over 4 weeks) Wine Basics class designed for both the beginner and the more experienced taster who wants an organizational framework for what he knows. The second is a one-night immersion into great Bordeaux. Both are not-to-be-missed experiences.

WINE 101:
A Four-Week Course on Wine Basics beginning on Monday, January 6, 2014
Please join me, Spec’s fine wine buyer Bear Dalton, for this four-week Wine Basics course. “Wine 101” is appropriate both for those just developing their interest in wine and for those who feel the need for a good review to help organize their tasting and thinking about wine. This class also would be a good place to start for a service professional looking to move more into the wine side of the restaurant business or anyone looking to move into the wholesale or retail wine trade. As wine from all over the world is now so readily available, the 40 wines we will taste over the four-week class will come from all over the world. All tasting will be from Riedel Degustazione stemware.  (READ MORE)

2011 (Mostly) CRU CLASSÉ BORDEAUX TASTING
At the CRYSTAL BALLROOM at the Rice
On Tuesday, January 21, 2014, Spec’s will host approximately Bordeaux chateau owners, directors, and/or winemakers presenting 60 mostly Cru Classé Bordeaux wines all from the 2011 vintage in a standup- and-walk-around tasting format. This is our third time to host a delegation from Bordeaux. The last two year’s events were smashing successes so the chateaux are back and they are bringing fiends so we will be showing more wines. The list of well-known and highly regarded wineries has come together. The tasting will open at 4:30pm and run until 8:30pm, giving tasters ample time to taste the wines and visit with our guests from Bordeaux. (READ MORE)

Champagne Friday: PJ Grand Brut

Today’s wine seems like an old friend I don’t see often enough. Every time I have Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut, I think why don’t I drink this more often. The dominance of black grapes and higher percentage of Meunier give it a comforting toasty-biscuity character I especially like in a winter time bubbly. Of the bigger name Brut NV Champagnes, PJ Grand Brut may well be my favorite.PerrierJouetGB

PERRIER-JOUET Grand Brut, Champagne, NV ($39.89)
A base blend of 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Pinot Meunier and 20% Chardonnay with 15% reserve wines from previous vintages finished brut with a dosage of 11 grams per liter (1.1% residual sugar).     Straw in color. Dry, medium-light-bodied with fresh acidity. Fresh and toasty with ripe citrus, a bit of red fruit essence, and some tree fruit, some biscuity character, and something of a floral note. As always, it seems to be better than I remembered it. Pretty in the mouth. Quite tasty. BS: 92.

CHAMPAGNE QUOTE:
Always keep a bottle of Champagne in the ‘fridge for special occasions. Sometimes the special occasion is that you’ve got a bottle of Champagne in the ‘fridge.” – Hester Browne

PLEASE check the EVENTS PAGE for my upcoming WINE 101 class beginning January 6th at the Wine School and the annual 2011 CRU CLASSÉ BORDEAUX TASTING on January 21st at the Crystal Ballroom at the Rice.

Better Bubbly from California

When I first began paying attention to wine back in 1977, all sparkling wines were “champagne”. Krug and Moet were big “C” Champagne and Andre and Korbel were little “c” champagne but they were all “champagne.” We didn’t know any better and we didn’t care.  The big Champagne brands (Moet, Mumm, Roederer, Taittinger …) that are around now were either already established in the US or well on their way (Veuve Clicquot, Pommery, etc.).

In California, Schramsberg was at the top of the pecking order followed by Iron Horse, Hans Kornell (no longer in business), and Korbel all of whom used Méthode Champenoise. Taylor New York State and Paul Masson (both made using the transfer process) were important players in the mid level market. Gallo’s Andre (Charmat process) was the big volume brand but Charmat wines from Franzia and J. Roget had the bottom of the price market covered.  If most of my parents or grand parents’ friends went to by a bottle of champagne, they bought Andre or Korbel Blanc de Blancs.

Then things began to change. Moet & Chandon (then as “Domaine Chandon” but now as “Chandon”) came to the US and built a new “sparkling wine” winery in Yountville in Napa Valley. They raised the bar by more closely following the Champagne process and by using the right grapes – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay (OK, and some Pinot Blanc too) –  to make their bubblies. Before that, only Iron Horse stayed strictly with classic Champagne varieties. Chandon pushed Hans Kornell, nudged Korbel, and even made Schramsberg and Iron Horse take notice. Chandon also drove home that, even though they were using Méthode Champenoise, they were making “California sparkling wine” and that only the stuff made in Champagne in France was rightly called “Champagne.”

Piper Sonoma, a joint venture between Rodney Strong’s Sonoma Vineyards and Champagne house Piper Heidsieck, followed Chandon into the market. Piper Sonoma also paid close attention to Méthode Champenoise and they made sure to pick only into small bins so as to minimize color extraction so that their Blanc de Noirs (a white sparkler made from all black grapes) was not the color of “the eye of some damn bird” (to quote the irascible Rod Strong). Again the bar was raised.

A flood of other Champagne producers followed. Roederer (Roederer Estate, Mumm (Mumm Napa), Deutz (Maison Deutz), Veuve Clicquot (Scharffenberger), and Taittinger (Domaine Carneros in partnership with Taittinger US importer Kobrand) all developed wineries in California. The market became more competitive and the wines got better. Korbel was forced into a lower price niche and Chandon was unable to raise prices. Taylor and Paul Masson – both of which had been huge brands – began to fade from the market.

Hot on the heels of the Champagne houses, Spain’s two biggest Cava producers came to California. Freixenet and Codorniu each opened sparkling wine wineries in Carneros with Freixenet’s Gloria Ferrer coming first on the Sonoma side and Codorniu following on the Napa Side.  Other California producers got into and out of the sparkling wine game. Kendall-Jackson tried with Kristone but the market was not ready (and may never be ready) for the lower acid style they tried … (Does anyone else even remember Kristone?)

Where there had been a dearth of high quality California sparkling wine, there was a sudden glut. The wines were/are the best they have ever been but there was too much bubbly California wine.  In addition, there was more competition from Spain, from the non-Champagne sparkling wines of France, and from South America. (Oddly enough, Australia and New Zealand are not yet big international players in sparkling wine – but that is sure to change.) The market had to adjust and it did. Clicquot sold Scharffenberger and left the market, Deutz closed up shop (although Laetitia is now making fine Pinot Noir and some sparkling wine in the old Deutz facility. Codorniu has shut down most of their sparkling production and the Artesa still wines are now made in that winery. Piper Sonoma is now owned outright by Piper Heidsieck without a US partner.

The sparkling wine scene in the US is now more stable and more vital than at any point since 1999. Champagne is still strong despite higher prices driven as much by the dollar versus the euro than by supplier price increases (although there has been some of that). Because Champagne is higher in price, most all the Champagne alternatives are also doing well, especially those that are not affected by currency fluctuations (which is specifically California sparkling wine).

Just as in Champagne, arguments may be made as to who is California’s best producer and which are the best cuvees. Most discussions for top producer would include Schramsberg, Iron Horse, Domaine Carneros, and Roederer. Gloria Ferrer might be a dark horse. As to the best cuvee, each of those top producers has a dog or dogs in the hunt along with Codorniu, Mumm, and Chandon. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that, as long as you stay with the Méthode Champenoise producers, there are no actual bad choices. Here are my snap shots of some of the super premium producers.SchramsbergBlancDeBlancs

SCHRAMSBERG
In 1965, Jack and Jamie Davies discovered the run-down Schramsberg winery on a mountainside above St. Helena.  The historic Schramsberg winery and vineyards had been abandoned for years; the antique Victorian mansion looked down on the tangled remnants of what used to be gardens. Behind were the gaping entrances to Jacob Schram’s underground cellars hand-dug by Chinese laborers.

The Davies’ plan was to make sparking wines. In its original iteration under founder Jacob Schram, Schramsberg had made a lot of different kinds of wine but had never produced sparkling wines. Nevertheless, the Davies said they wanted to make “America’s most prestigious, select and admired sparkling wine; chosen for special guests, special gifts, pampering one’s self and expressing one’s taste in unique products.” They realized that to sell a super premium sparking wine produced in the United States, they would need to change the way people looked a sparkling wine. The Davies wanted to make sparkling wines with richness and complexity using the authentic Méthode Champenoise process. Wines that would be as “expressive as any of the great Champagnes – delicate, yet possessing distinct individuality and style.”

Starting from scratch, they replanted the vineyards and began growing grapes. They began making wine from purchased grapes in 1965. Their 1965 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs was the first commercial use of Chardonnay in an American sparkling wine. The 1967 Blanc de Noirs was the first American bubbly produced using Pinot Noir as it is used in Champagne. Their next wine released was the Reserve – with over four years of aging en tirage – which quickly became known as “the finest sparkling wine made in the United States.” 1973 was the first year for the Cremant Demi-Sec made using Flora – a crossing of Semillon and Gewurztraminer created at the University of California at Davis. In 1992, the 1987 J. Schram was introduced as an alternative or complementary (to the Reserve) tete de cuvee of the Schramsberg range.

Of all the higher-end California sparkling brands that were around before Moet started the French invasion, only Schramsberg and Iron Horse have survived and thrived while maintaining their deluxe reputations. (Korbel is still going strong but no longer enjoys the high quality image it once had.)

Many of the Schramsberg cuvees receive partial barrel fermentation and aging as well as partial malo-lactic fermentations to add depth and richness to the finished wine.  There is no question that Schramsberg is performing at the top most level and enjoys the best reputation of all the US bubbly producers.

ROEDERER ESTATERoedererEstate
Roederer Estate’s unique winemaking style is based on two elements: complete ownership of its vineyards and the addition of oak-aged reserve wines to each year’s blend or cuvee. This winemaking philosophy has guided the development of Roederer Estate, located 125 miles north of San Francisco near the Mendocino Coast. Since 1982, Roederer Estate winery has been developing its own vineyards and making fine wines from the Anderson Valley. Roederer Estate’s Anderson Valley Brut debuted in October 1988 followed by the winery’s first vintage cuvee, L’Ermitage, in 1993.

Jean-Claude Rouzaud, then president of Champagne Louis Roederer and fifth generation descendant of the founder, selected the 580-acre Anderson Valley vineyard and winery site in 1982. Rouzaud, who has since handed down the family tradition and position to son Frédéric Rouzaud, believed that estate-owned vineyards were essential to ensure top quality wine, and had searched California for ideal growing conditions throughout the course of several years.

The Anderson Valley offers the cool climate and well-drained soils that are ideally suited to the production of sparkling wine grapes. The region’s proximity to the ocean gives it a cycle of warm days and cool nights, allowing grapes to mature slowly on the vine and develop full varietal character. To achieve an optimum balance of acids and sugars in the estate’s grapes, Rouzaud introduced an “open lyre” trellis system for training the vines on moveable wires, providing more exposure to sunlight than traditional trellising methods.

Roederer Estate winery only uses Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes grown in its own vineyards. As a result, the winery can be very selective, and generally uses only about 70 percent of the first 120 gallons per ton of grapes. Roederer Estate uses none of the subsequent pressings of 16 gallons per ton each). Much of Roederer Estate’s quality and style due to the addition of reserve wines which are selected from the best wines each year and aged in “Center of France” oak barrels. Wines from this reserve cellar are added to each blend, creating a cuvee in the traditional richer Roederer style.

GLORIA FERRER
For more than 25 years, Gloria Ferrer (“the first sparkling wine house in the Sonoma Carneros region”) has been making excellent bubbly from Carneros grapes.  Owned by the Ferrer family, who also own Cava producers Freixenet, Segura Viudas, and Castelblanch, and Champagne house Henri Abele, the Gloria Ferrer winery is a blend of Catalan and California mission design.

Gloria Ferrer cultivates fruit for their sparkling in their 335 acres of Sonoma Carneros estate vineyards. Carneros is distinguished by cool windy days, summer fog, and a long growing season that allows grapes to mature slowly and consistently with balanced sugar and acidity. Vineyard Manager Mike Crumly and Winemaker Bob Iantosca, both of whom have worked for Gloria Ferrer from its inception, have devoted more than 25 years to identifying the diverse soil types and microclimates of the estate. Their team has meticulously matched dozens of clones to the diverse growing conditions in the estate’s vineyards.

IRON HORSE
Owned by the Sterling family, Iron Horse is in Sonoma County’s Green Valley in the coolest, foggiest part of the Russian River Valley, just 13 miles from the Pacific Ocean. The Sterlings have approximately 170 acres of gentle, rolling hills under vine planted exclusively to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Iron Horse espouses sustainable farming practices with riparian corridors along the creek beds that have been allowed to revert to their natural state, fostering a better ecological balance, which allows minimal intervention in the vineyards. A variety of cover crops are used for soil amelioration and to prevent erosion. The predominant soil type is Gold Ridge  – a sandy clay loam that has excellent drainage and is well balanced in terms of its mineral elements, making it highly sought after in Sonoma, especially for Pinot Noir. The vineyard is divided into specific blocks, which are each farmed individually, harvested separately and then vinified as if each block were a single vineyard.

In order to show a definite sense of place (Green Valley terroir), Iron Horse makes only estate-bottled wines. The Sterlings’ goals are to “make wines that are specific to the Green Valley appellation, to the estate, and to the vintage, making the best wines of the year without using on recipe winemaking.” Generally speaking, none of the cuvees undergo malo-lactic fermentation. Richness, creaminess, and depth of flavor come from extended aging on the yeast in the bottle.

DOMAINE CARNEROSDomaineCarneros
Established in 1987, Domaine Carneros is a joint venture between Champagne Taittinger and its American importer Kobrand Corporation. Kobrand Corporation brought nearly a half-century’s experience in distribution and marketing of high quality imported and domestic wines to the effort. Champagne Taittinger, one of the last remaining privately held Champagne firms, is internationally known for its portfolio of premium and luxury cuvee Champagnes.

As President of the Syndicat des Grandes Marques de Champagne, Claude Taittinger was aware that increasing worldwide demand for high quality sparkling wines would eventually create a demand that Champagne alone could not supply. The region’s maximum potential 90,000 acres of vineyards were nearly all planted without further possibility of expansion. Claude Taittinger was convinced that the Carneros appellation would yield super-premium quality sparkling wines.

Domaine Carneros draws on the roots of Champagne Taittinger’s history, the most visible expression of which is the winery itself, styled after Taittinger’s 17th century Château de la Marquetterie near Reims. The 138-acre estate is situated in the Carneros AVA, an appellation is known for its unique soil and climatic conditions. Domaine Carneros is about four miles southwest of the city of Napa with boundaries on Highway 12, Duhig Road and the Huichica Creek. The estate’s vineyards, first planted in 1982, extend up a slope rising to a crest overlooking San Pablo Bay, with an elevation of 120 to 260 feet above sea level. This spot is the perfect for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir destined for sparkling wines.

From the beginning, Eileen Crane has been the Managing Director of Domaine Carneros. She is past President of the Carneros Quality Alliance and of Classic Methods/Classic Varietals, California’s Méthode Champenoise society. Prior to Domaine Carneros, she had experience at Chandon and Gloria Ferrer.

The first cuvee of Domaine Carneros was a non-vintage Brut released in 1988. The cuvee was blended from approximately 30% Chardonnay and 65% Pinot Noir with 5% Pinot Blanc. Since the 1991 vintage, Domaine Carneros Brut was produced as a vintage-dated wine. That 1991 was first released in 1995.

The winery’s second cuvee, Domaine Carneros Blanc de Blancs, was first produced in the 1988 vintage and first released in 1993. This cuvee is produced exclusively from estate grown Chardonnay grapes with a small addition of Pinot Blanc grapes. This blanc de blanc is the wine that has evolved into today’s Domaine Carneros tete de cuvee “La Reve”

CHANDON
In 1973, Champagne house Moet & Chandon and its parent company Moët-Hennessy (now LVMH) bought vineyard land in Napa Valley to grow grapes to produce an American Méthode Champenoise sparkling wine. They bought in Mt. Veeder, in Carneros (at that time a virtually undiscovered region cooled by bay breezes), and in Yountville where the winery is located. These purchases marked the beginning of the first French-owned sparkling wine venture in the US and changed the nature of producing sparkling wine in California forever.

The new venture, which became first Domaine Chandon and latter simply “Chandon”, planted vineyards and built an “architectural and ecological” winery designed to blend into its surroundings. Domaine Chandon’s first sparkling wine was released in 1976.  The visitor center opened its doors in 1977. Chandon was the first sparkling wine producer in the US to introduce smaller containers to preserve delicate grapes during harvest and the first California winery to use Pinot Meunier in its sparkling wines.

After three decades, Chandon has it down. The wines are a combination of new world fruit and old World tradition. Chandon is now a division of Chandon Estates along with Chandon properties in Argentina, Australia, and Brazil. You may remember the Argentine Chandon wines (such as Brut Perle) were sold in the US for a few years. They were so good and so popular, Chandon Estates had to pull them from the market as they were eating up the sales of the Napa Chandon wines.

LAETITIA
Laetitia Vineyard & Winery has a fancy pedigree going back to the champagne house of Maison Deutz. In 1982, Champagne Deutz came to California looking for the right place to grow grapes for Méthode Champenoise sparkling wines. They likened the soils and climate of the Arroyo Grande Valley to those found in their native Epernay so they bough the land and Maison Deutz was born. About 185 acres were planted to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc and for more than 13 years, Maison Deutz enjoyed an excellent reputation for outstanding Méthode Champenoise sparkling wines.

In 1997, Maison Deutz sold out to vineyard owner, Jean-Claude Tardivat who renamed the winery Laetitia after his daughter. At this time, the winery’s focus began to shift from sparkling wine to still wine production of Burgundian-style varietals.  In 1998, the winery was acquired by a partnership that included Selim Zilkha. In 2001, Zilka bought out his partners in Laetitia and assumed leadership of the brand.

Located four miles from the Pacific Ocean, Laetitia’s estate vineyard is part of an AVA whose unique topography makes it one of California’s coolest grape growing regions. Laetitia’s estate vineyard is located in the western portion of the Arroyo Grande Valley AVA which is considered a Region I (coolest region) on the U.C. Davis scale.

When the French enologists and viticulturalists from Champagne House Maison Deutz planted original vineyard in 1982, they carefully researched the terrain, planting vines in specific sites chosen for their soil profile, exposure and microclimate. This model was also used to plant new vines in the late 1990’s and explains the somewhat staggered layout of vineyard blocks within the Laetitia estate. Laetitia’s vineyards were among the first modern-era plantings begun in the early 1980’s. In 1990, the Arroyo Grande Valley was recognized as an approved American Viticultural Appellation. The estate consists of 1,888 acres, with 620 acres planted to grape vines. Pinot Noir is the most widely planted varietal, with 450 acres under cultivation. Chardonnay is the next largest planting, with 85 acres, followed by Pinot Blanc (64 acres), Tempranillo (27 acres), Syrah (26 acres), Pinot Gris (20 acres), and a small amount of White Riesling.

While the soils of the estate vineyard manifest many variations on a common theme, the primary soil type consists of a loamy clay overlying decomposed volcanic tuft and limestone shale. These calcareous based soils help control vine vigor. The vineyards are planted on a series of south facing hillsides, which protect the vines from the wind and fog rushing in from the nearby ocean. The unique character of our site provides sunny days with moderate temperatures, fostering a long, cool growing season. The vineyard’s rocky hillsides allow for excellent drainage, which is essential for controlling vine vigor. The average harvest yields roughly 4.5 pounds of grapes per vine (2.5 tons per acre), or the equivalent of 2 bottles of wine per vine.

PIPER_SONOMA
Piper-Heidsieck supplied the know how for the Méthode Champenoise and Sonoma Vineyards (later renamed Rodney Strong Vineyards) supplied the grapes from the cooler areas of the Russian River Valley as well as the initial place to make the wine. I first visited in Piper Sonoma in about 1983 and saw bottles being riddled (a step in the Champagne process) using gyro-palletes. Rodney Strong, a former Broadway dancer and choreographer turned winemaker, was the public face of Piper-Sonoma who regularly traveled talking about the wines. Rod walked us through the sparkling wine production process and we tasted the three Piper Sonoma bubblies: Brut, Blanc de Noirs, and Tete de Cuvee. While the more expensive Tete de Cuvee didn’t do much for me, I thought the Brut and the Blanc de Noirs (a “white” sparkler made from all red grapes) were well-made fizz that fit nicely into the upper quality tier of California bubbly. I remember Rodney Strong’s pleasure that the Blanc de Noirs was close in color to the Brut with no tell-tale pink or salmon tint – “the eye of some damn bird” as he liked to say in a reference to the “eye of the swan” or the “oeil de perdrix” (eye of partridge) that appeared on some labels of the pinker blanc de noirs of the day.

Fast-forward to the present and much has changed. Both Piper-Heidsieck and the Rodney Strong winery have changed hands. The Rodney Strong winery was sold to the Klein family in 1989. Rod Strong’s last involvement in wine was as a partner to Todd Williams in Toad Hollow. Sadly, Rod passed away back in March of 2006 and Todd Williams, aka Dr. Toad, passed in August of 2007. Piper-Heidsieck, itself now owned by Remy-Martin, now wholly owns Piper Sonoma. Piper Sonoma Tete de Cuvee seems to have faded away and, at least according to the Remy Cointreau trade web site, the Blanc de Noirs now contains some Chardonnay (which in my book would disqualify it as a true Blanc de Noirs but why quibble?). These wines are “corporate” now but in a good way (as almost all grand marque Champagne – the big names – is corporate) and they have deep roots in the traditions of both Champagne and Sonoma County. One thing that hasn’t changed is the quality of the wines.

MUMM NAPA
Champagne G.H. Mumm and winemaker Guy Devaux came to Napa Valley in the second wave (mid 1980s) of French Champagne companies opening sparkling wine wineries in the US. Mumm Napa was founded and owned my G.H. Mumm, which in turn was mostly owned by Seagram’s. The first wines were released in 1986 from grapes harvested in 1984. When Seagram’s was sold and broken up, G.H. Mumm and Mumm Napa (along with Perrier-Jouet) moved under the ownership of Pernod Ricard. Quality has been and remains high.

Some of My Favorite California Sparklers:
SCHRAMSBERG Blanc de Blancs Sparkling 2010   $37.99
This 85% Pinot Noir – 15%% Chardonnay blend is sourced from Napa Carneros, Sonoma Coast, and Mendocino County. It is aged about 24 months en triage and dosed to a residual sugar of 1.16%.  The result is green and red apple fruit with notes of citrus, mineral, and yeast. It’s lively acidity gives balance to its creamy texture. Elegant and focused. Excellent. BS: 92.

SCHRAMSBERG Blanc de Noir Sparkling 2007    $37.99
This 100% Chardonnay is sourced from Napa Carneros, Sonoma Coast, Mendocino county, and Marin County. It is aged about 20 months en triage and dosed to a residual sugar of 1.18%.  The result is an earthy mixed red fruit with notes of apple and lemony citrus, along with earthy minerality, and toasty yeast. It’s Richer and deeper than the Blanc de Blanc. Excellent. BS: 92+.

SCHRAMSBERG Brut Rosé, California, 2010    $37.99
This blend of 40% Chardonnay and 60% Pinot Noir is sourced from Napa Carneros, Sonoma Coast, Mendocino County, and Marin County. It is aged about 20 months en triage and dosed to a residual sugar of 1.15%.  The result is a creamy red fruit dominated somewhat earthy Rosé offering good toasty richness and lots of flavor. Beautiful color. This is a supper food fizz. Excellent. BS: 92+.

SCHRAMSBERG Brut Reserve, California, 2005
A blend of 30% Chardonnay and 70% Pinot Noir sourced from Napa Carneros, Sonoma Coast, Mendocino county, and Marin County partially fermented and aged in barrels with a partial malo-lactic fermentation bottled and aged 63 months en triage and dosed to a residual sugar of 1.16%, this is a toasty ripe, serious sparkler offering pear, apple and mixed citrus fruit with hints of red berries and exotic fruit to go with its creamy rich yeast and toast character and focusing acidity and minerality. Rich and satisfying with a hint of earthiness. BS: 95+.

SCHRAMSBERG Cuvee J Schram, California, 2001   $93.59
A blend of 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir sourced from Napa Carneros, Sonoma Coast, Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, and Marin County partially fermented and aged in barrels with a partial malo-lactic fermentation bottled and aged 69 months en triage and dosed to a residual sugar of 1.15%, this is a rich ripe, serious sparkler offering apple and lemon and orange citrus fruit with a hint of tropical character to go with its distinctive yeast and toast and wood notes and precise acidity and minerality. Lovely in the mouth. BS: 95.

DOMAINE CARNEROS Brut, Carneros, 2008   $20.89
A blend of about 2/3 Pinot Noir and 1/3 Chardonnay aged for three years en triage and finished with final residual sugar of 1.2%, this toasty-yeasty vintage Brut offers fine lemony citrus with red apple and subtle red berry fruit accented with floral, mineral, and baking spice with a lovely creamy feel in the mouth and a finish that comes in waves. This should reward keeping for a couple of years. IT is always better than I expect it to be. BS: 93

ROEDERER ESTATE Brut, Anderson Valley, NV $18.89
A blend of approximately 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay aged over two years en tirage and finished with a final residual sugar of 1.2%, this is reference standard California Brut offering a fine mix of citrus and tree fruit with a touch of earthy red fruit and plenty of yeast.  It has a fine feel in a medium-weight, satisfying style. Really Fine. BS: 90.

ROEDERER ESTATE Brut Rosé, Anderson Valley, NV $24.89
This is 95% a white base blend of approximately 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay (over 15% of this base is oak-aged reserve wine) that is supplemented with 5% red Pinot Noir to add the color, aged over two years en tirage, and finished with a final residual sugar of 1.2%.  It is a rich, ripe, winey-tasting rose with earthy cherry-berry fruit accented with lemony citrus and lots of toasty yeast. Satisfying and delicious, it is almost warming. Excellent. BS: 92+. (Please note: This is in very limited supply.)

ROEDERER ESTATE “l’Ermitage”, Anderson Valley, 2004 $23.99
A blend of 53% Pinot Noir and 47% Chardonnay (4% of this is 5.5 year oak-aged reserve wines) aged over five years en tirage and finished with a final residual sugar of 1.25%, this is Roederer Estate’s tete de cuvee. The result is a rich, toasty sparkler offering spicy baked apple with citrus fruit and a distinct bread note along with focusing minerality and lemon-lime acidity. Lovely in the mouth. BS: 94

LAETITIA Brut Rose, Arroyo Grande, NV    $21.84
The base wine is a white blend of stainless steel fermented and aged but full malo-lactic Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Blanc blended with some older barrel aged Pinot Noir. After the second (in the bottle) fermentation, the wine is aged 2 years en triage, and finished with a final residual sugar of 1.2% resulting in a vinous “winey-tasting” bubbly offering dark fruit and earthy notes with lots of toast and hints of citrus and spice.  Excellent. BS: 91.

GLORIA FERRER Blanc de Noirs, Sonoma Carneros, NV   $15.89
This 100% Pinot Noir (with some Pinot Noir Rosé as part of the base blend) sparkler aged 18 months en tirage and finished Brut (at 1.3% residual sugar) offers good red cherry-berry fruit with notes of citrus and minerally earth and good toast and yeast in a fresh and lively but satisfying style. Has the weight to handle food and the sugar to handle some spice. BS: 90+.

GLORIA FERRER Brut, Sonoma Carneros, NV   $15.89
This blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is aged 18 months en tirage and finished Brut (at 1.3% residual sugar). It offers lively citrus and red fruit with notes of earth, bready-yeast, spice, and dust. Again, has the weight to handle food and the sugar to handle some spice. BS: 90.

GLORIA FERRER Blanc de Blancs, Sonoma Carneros, 2007   $15.89
This 100% Chardonnay sparkler aged two years en tirage and finished Brut offers fresh lemon and red apple fruit with subtle mineral notes and a fine toasty-bready character in a crisp, fresh, lively style. Perfect as an aperitif or with oysters or sushi. Really Fine. BS: 91.

GLORIA FERRER Royal Cuvee Brut Sparkling 2004   $22.99
This blend of 67% Pinot Noir and 33% Chardonnay is aged six years en tirage and finished with a dosage to a final 1.3% residual sugar. It offers an amazing toasty richness with subtle integrated citrus and tree fruit. It is quite rich and soul-satisfying but still alive with flavor. Because of its age, it is a bit less fizzy than a younger wine would be but it is still fully sparkling. Delicious; think poor man’s Bollinger RD. BS: 94.

GLORIA FERRER Brut Carneros Cuvee 2001   $48.79

This blend of 53% Pinot Noir and 47% Chardonnay was aged ten years en tirage and finished with a dosage to a final 1.31% residual sugar. It offers an amazing integration of yeast and fruit with subtle citrus, apple, pear, and cherry-berry fruit accented with fine but not dominant yeast and toast. Rich and satisfying but retains all its elegance. Because of its age, it is a bit less fizzy than a younger wine would be but it is still fully sparkling. Delicious; another British-style winner. BS: 95.

Burgundy Profile: MARSANNAY

“Professor Pinot” has a nice ring to it. But what is it? Professor Pinot is the sort of Pinot Noir that college professors look for and drink. What makes college professors different? The are exposed to a lot of the better things in life and are often some of the smartest buyers but often operate on limited budgets because most college professors, like most other teachers, are under-paid. What does that have to do with Marsannay? Well, just about everything. Marsannay appeals to the professor – wine consumer on all levels.100_marsannay_lacote

Marsannay is the northern most village and wine appellation on the Cote de Nuits on the Cotes d’Or in Burgundy where it buts up against the south moving urban sprawl of the city of Dijon.

While it is true to say that Marsannay is less well known than its more expensive neighbors, it is still “in the neighborhood” Meaning it’s red wines are made from Pinot Noir grown in the same types of soils on the same slope as its more famous neighbors (such as Gevrey Chambertin, Morey St. Denis, etc.).

Actually, the Marsannay appellation is made up of three villages; from north to south, they are Chenove, Marsannay, and Couchey. Chenove has the least vineyards and is in eminent danger of being completely absorbed into the urban sprawl on the south side of Dijon, Marsannay the village, while still home to many wine domaines, is becoming something of a bedroom community for Dijon and little Couchey is not far behind. The vineyards at the bottom of the slope (close to the former RN74, now D974 road from Dijon down to Beaune) are Chardonnay for Marsannay Blanc and Pinot Noir for Marsannay Rosé. Once the slope proper begins to rise (well to the west of the road), the grapes from these better situated vineyards, many of which carry lieu diet names, are used for the red wines labeled Marsannay.

As they are at the north end of the famed Cote d’Or ridge, these vineyards are a bit cooler than those further south but they still have the highly prized limestone-based terroir and desirable east-southeastern exposure. What the Marsannay appellation lacks is a famous Grand Cru or even premier cru (1er cru) vineyard to carry its appellation name to greater fame. Where Vosne Romanee has Romanee Conti, where Gevrey Chambertin has Le Chambertin, where Meursault has Genevrieres, Marsannay has … well, nothing. Marsannay has little flash so it consequently has little fame. With little fame comes lower prices so Marsannay gives value.

Rather than a famous single site that has official recognition as a great terroir, Marsannay has lots of neat single sites officially known as lieux dits at the village level. Like a 1er cru, a lieux dit name can appear on the label with the village name. Some famous lieux dits include Meursault-Limozin and Puligny- Montrachet les Enseigneres. These lieux dits are sites that are recognized for quality but are just below the 1er cru level. In some cases they are very close but they are still village (pronounced vee-lahj like “vee lodge” without the “d”) wines (the third level in the Burgundy hierarchy). Nevertheless, as single vineyard wines, the wines labeled with the name of the village and the name of a single site they are usually more focused and cleaner tasting than a producer’s village (say it with me – vee-lahj) blend.

While there are simple village level, non-site-specific blends labeled Marsannay, the best wines from the appellation come from the single site lieux dit vineyards. One producer we began to follow back in the mid 1990s – Domaine St. Martin – makes several wines labeled Marsannay _______. Maybe it is Marsannay Champs Salomon or Marsannay Finottes or Marsannay Grand Vignes or Marsannay Longerots. The most fun may be Marsannay Echezeaux which had to change its name to Marsannay Echezots (which is pronounced the same) in order to placate the growers in the Grand Cru vineyard called simply Echezeaux – even though there is at least a $100 per bottle price difference between the two.

As Marsannay is a lesser know appellation, the prices are lower than for comparable “village level” wines from other appellations making them smart buys for those looking to drink good Burgundy Pinot Noir on a budget – which makes Marsannay, along with Maranges (at the south end of the Cote de Beaune, and Hautes Cotes de Nuits and some of the Chalonnaise wines, Professor Pinots.

While Spec’s carries a number of Marsannay wines, it should be obvious from the list below that my favorite Marsannay producer is Domiane St. Martin. Unfortunately, if you look at a map of Marsannay, you don’t find such a domaine. You do find, however a “Domaine Bart” owned in part by Martin Bart.2007 marsannay echezots

Domaine St. Martin is a sort of virtual domaine that is a joint venture between vigneron Martin Bart and elevage expert and artesinal wine broker Patrick Lesec. Bart owns Domaine Bart, a Marsannay successor estate to the former Domaine Clair Dau (the vineyards of which were purchased by Louis Jadot). The domaine has 15 hectares (38 acres) of vineyards with vines ranging in age from 20 to over 60 years old in multiple lieux dits in  Marsannay as well as Santenay, Fixin, Gevrey, and Chambolle. Patrick Lesec is a broker who works with such Burgundy domaines as Jean Louis Trapet and Henri & Giles Remoriquet. He is an expert at elevage – the art and science of taking a wine from just after fermentation through the cellaring process into the bottle – who advocates a non-interventionist approach where wines are racked no more than twice while they’re developing in the barrel, left unfiltered and unfined, and are often hand-bottled directly from the barrel with no assemblage. Why? Because racking, fining, filtering, blending, and processing through a pressurized bottling line all take away some of the flavor and aroma of the wines. Some of that flavor comes back but some is lost forever.

Bart tends the vineyards, farming to keep the yields low (but in balance) and harvests the grapes at maximum ripeness. Bart typically ferments the wine with a five day “cold soak” (pre-fermentation maceration) and fermentation that lasts 15 days. The Bart/Lesec cuvees are released not as “Domaine Bart” but as “Domaine St. Martin” to differentiate them from Domaine Bart’s own bottlings.

I could give you my tasting notes on these wines but they really don’t matter. They’re only snapshots of what the wines tasted like at a particular moment in time. The wines are all close in quality and frankly, some weeks one will show a bit better than the other and other weeks it won’t. They each age and develop on their own curves. A few years back, I served four of the St. Martin Marsannay lieux dits at Thanksgiving dinner and, although they all showed well, there was a consensus favorite. At Christmas dinner that same year, I served the same four wines again. Again they all showed well but this time there was a different consensus favorite. The point is that they are all good and all great values and it is virtually impossible to pick which will show best on a given day – which of course is part of both the fun and the frustration of Burgundy.

CAMILE GIROUD Marsannay Longerois 2009 ($42.74)
BRUNO CLAIR Marsannay Longerois 2009 ($34.49)
St. MARTIN Marsannay les Longerois, 2009 ($29.99)
Longerois is on clay soils (in Burgundy clay = fruit) at the north end of the lieu diet band near the top of the slope.

St. MARTIN Marsannay Grands Vignes ,2010 ($31.99)
St. MARTIN Marsannay Grands Vignes, 2009($31.99)
St. MARTIN Marsannay Grands Vignes, 2007($29.39)
St. MARTIN Marsannay Grands Vignes, 2006($24.99)
St. MARTIN Marsannay Grands Vignes, 2004($21.84)
On a more classic limestone terroir just above the village in the southern middle of the appellation. I think this should be 1er cru.

St. MARTIN Marsannay Finottes 2006 ($25.64)
Finottes is on sandy terroir (sand = elegance) just south of Longerois and below Echezots.

St. MARTIN Marsannay Echezots 2009 ($31.99)
St. MARTIN Marsannay Echezots 2007 ($29.39)
St. MARTIN Marsannay Echezots 2006 ($24.99)
St. MARTIN Marsannay Echezeaux 2003 ($23.99)
Echezeaux (Echezots) is on a more classic limestone terroir at the top of the slope toward the north end. I think should be 1er cru.

St. MARTIN Marsannay Champs Salomon 2010 ($34.99)
St. MARTIN Marsannay Champs Salomon 2009 ($32.99)
St. MARTIN Marsannay Champs Salomon 2004 ($23.99)
Champas Salomon is on a more classic limestone terroir located mid-slope just across the border in Couchey

LECHENEAUT Marsannay Les Sampagny 2010 ($52.24)
LECHENEAUT Marsannay Les Sampagny 2009 ($49.79)
At the south end of Couchey (next to Fixin) toward the botton of the slope.

FOUGERAY de BEAUCLAIR Marsannay Gras 2009              $35.99)
LOUIS LATOUR Marsannay 2011                                            $21.49

CHAMPAGNE FRIDAY: JP Marniquet Prestige 1989

jean-pierre-marniquet-cuvee-prestigeStanding in the door of a garage, just off the street on a back road in the Vallee de la Marne west of Epernay in Champagne, I tasted a wine so good, I almost didn’t buy it when I got back because I didn’t think it could be as good as what I remembered. This vintage Champagne had been aging en triage for over 20 years and had just been disgorged as we stood and watched. It had no dosage and was “cave” temperature … and it was brilliant. Suffice to say, I finally bought some, disgorged to order and finished with no dosage. It has now come in and I have gotten to taste, or rather drink from a couple of bottles. WOW! Every bit as good as I had remembered.

JP MARNIQUET Prestige Champagne, 1989 ($101.99)
An estate-bottled, vintage blend of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir grown in the Vallee de la Marne and aged en tirage (on the lees of the bottle fermentation) until it was disgorged in the late spring of 2013. This disgorgement is un-dosed so the flavors and richness and balance all come from the vintage and those long years of cold, slow development in Marniquet’s cave. So how does it taste? Amazing. This is rich, developed, complete, complex Champagne with great length and purity. It is hard to describe the flavors. The first taste is like the last sip of one of the best bottles you have ever tasted and it builds from there. Toasty, rich, elegant but with an ever-changing mix of both fresh and dried fruit. The chalk-mineral-earth of Champagne is present but fully integrated. This is a wine you want to spend some time getting to know. Drink it from wine glasses rather than Champagne flutes. Sip it with richer foods or indulge in it in lieu of dessert. Lovely in the mouth. BS: 100

CHAMPAGNE QUOTE:
A party without Champagne is just a meeting.” (with apologies to Julia Child who said “cake” but probably wishes she’d said “Champagne.”

Please check the EVENTS PAGE for an upcoming WINE 101 class and our annual CRU CLASSÉ BORDEAUX TASTING featuring the 2011 vintage.