Parsing Chardonnay

I don’t like Chardonnay.” she said.
So you don’t want any of this Puligny Montrachet les Folatieres?” he replied.
Of course I do … but that’s White Burgundy.”
Which is Chardonnay.”
So why do I like White Burgundy but not Chardonnay?”
That’s a good question . . .

If you’ve ever asked that question, if you’ve ever wondered why wines taste the way they do, the answer is that it is because of where they’re from (place) – and where they were made, what they’re made from (grapes), how they’re made (technique, tradition, and even law), who made them (person – which, in fact, has a lot to do with how), and when they were made (vintage). So Chardonnay from Chablis will taste different than Chardonnay from Puligny and Chardonnay from Puligny will taste different than Chardonnay from Carneros – which will taste different than Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast.

If you have a good knowledge about wine and you taste a Chardonnay, you may (or may not) be able to come to some conclusions about the where, the what, the how, and more. And, if you know the technical information about (the where and what and how, etc.) a particular wine, you may be able to (maybe should be able to) predict what the wine will taste like. That’s why we (the “collective we” of all of us wine geeks) go to the trouble to taste a lot of wine and learn about wine: we want to be able to more accurately pick wines we will enjoy drinking.

Just so you know: In the US, more people drink Chardonnay than any other kind of wine. Over 19% of all the wine purchased from Spec’s says “Chardonnay” on the label – and that doesn’t include any of the French Chardonnays labeled with place names like Puligny Montrachet or Pouilly Fuisse, Meursault or Macon, Chassagne or Chablis. This, even though many if not most people who are professionals in the wine business or who write about wine drink little if any wine labeled Chardonnay. Oddly enough, as they drink so little Chardonnay, many if not most of these professionals are not qualified to recommend Chardonnay. Many are not even comfortable talking about Chardonnay.

If we’re going to look at Chardonnay, lets start with “What.” Chardonnay is a green skinned grape yielding clear juice, likely native to France’ Burgundy region, used to make white wine. A crossing of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc (an almost extinct white variety that has served as a parent to several better known varieties), Chardonnay is the second most planted white wine variety and may soon pass Airen (grown only in Spain and used mostly to make brandy) to take the number one spot. Chardonnay is planted in more wine producing regions around the world than any other variety. While it is a fairly neutral variety that shows the influence of place and technique, there are some Chardonnay fruit characteristics. In the coolest climates, Chardonnay can offer a lemony citrus component along with green tree fruit (apple and pear) and green banana. In more moderate climates, more ripeness can bring a broader range of citrus with riper tree fruit, occasionally some stone fruit (peach is possible) and even some melon and other tropical notes. In the warmest areas where Chardonnay is grown, the fruit can get into the pineapple, mango, and ripe banana range without necessarily loosing all of its citrus freshness. One of the telltales for Chardonnay is a nuance of banana fruit anywhere on the scale from green to over-ripe. Maybe it easier to define in the negative: All other things being equal, Chardonnay is less grassy than Sauvignon Blanc, less juicy than Riesling, less fat than Viognier, less fresh than Pinot Gris (Grigio), etc.

Moving to where, if Chardonnay is cropped at reasonable yield levels (say from under 2 to 4 tons per acre) in a balanced vineyard (one where yields are in balance with the vigor of the vines and the soil), Chardonnay will reflect the character of the place as much as any other white wine producing grape. If the yields are too low, Chardonnay can lose its place by becoming overly extracted and even gritty tasting. If yields are too high (some Australian vineyards have “achieved” from 12 to 20 or more tons per acre), place disappears into simplistic pineapple popsicle fruit. Which is not to say that all places are good places or that all or even most places even have a recognizable character. It’s just that if there is a distinctive mark of place to be found, good Chardonnay is most likely to show it.

As Chardonnay’s spiritual home is Burgundy, it seems clear that Chardonnay should grow well in chalky soils (Chablis, and coincidentally, Champagne) and on limestone (the Cote d’Or, Cote Chalonnaise, and Macon) – and it does. What is amazing is how well Chardonnay can do in other areas where the soils range from sedimentary to volcanic in origin or even on some of California’s (and Chile’s) granitic soils. Outside of Burgundy, “great” Chardonnay has come from Texas (clay over limestone), Carneros (marine sediments), New Zealand (especially Marlborough and Central Otago), and various parts of Australia (especially Margaret River). Each of these places can have a unique gout de terroir (smell of place) that can (in the best cases) mark the wine making “Where?” an answerable question.

As to how, if it is a white winemaking technique, it has been tried on Chardonnay. About the only thing that seems never to work is trying to make Chardonnay into a sweet dessert style wine. To oversimplify: If you start with 22.5% sugar, higher acidity grapes and ferment slowly in cool stainless steel tanks and block malo-lactic fermentation and minimize subsequent air contact with no barrel aging, you get a completely different result than if you start with 25% sugar, lower acidity grapes and barrel ferment (with, let’s say, at least one third new barrels) and age the wine with lees-stirring and full malo-lactic fermentation in those barrels for 12 or so months. The first sort (as made in Chablis) offers a steelier, more focused style with fresher and maybe leaner fruit and usually (at least in Chablis) a sort of chalky-limestone minerality. The second sort (as made in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley) is likely to offer riper but less intense or even ill-defined fruit flavors with lots of milky-buttery-creamy aromas, flavors, and textures accented by an almost sawdust oak component and a toasty (from the lees) richness. The first sort is all about the fruit and the place. The second sort is at least as much (and often more) about the winemaking (technique and style) and the stamp of the winemaker as it is about fruit or place, especially as both fruit and place can so easily be overwhelmed by technique (aka “winemaking load”).

Technical Considerations (The Vineyard)
Where to plant, rootstocks, genetic material (whether clones or a massal selection), row orientation, and even trellising systems are all early on decisions that can affect the wine for many vintages. Healthy vineyards are rarely replanted before they are 30 years old and often (in the best sites) not before they are 75 or more years old. Farming techniques such as sustainable agriculture, organic agriculture, or even biodynamic farming also have a large effect but those effects are more immediate than which variety is planted.

When working the vines, are horses or tractors used? Horses are gentler and less compacting to the earth and often leave something beneficial behind. Tractors are faster and easier but they compact the ground and leave behind diesel fumes.
Picking date is a different “when” than “vintage.” Picking earlier gives more acid (and lower pH) and brighter fruit with potentially lower alcohol. Of course, picking too early leads to under ripe or even green flavors. Picking later brings lower total acidity and higher pH, more sugar (and so riper fruit flavors and higher potential alcohol) and other, not always positive, possibilities.

Technical Considerations (The Winery and Cellar)
How much sorting was done in the field and in the winery? (Sometimes too much sorting can lead to boring, homogenous wines.) Were the harvested grape clusters crushed and de-stemmed, just de-stemmed (whole berries), or left to go into the press as whole clusters. Was sulfur-dioxide used to kill any native yeast or other microbes from the vineyard before fermentation?

Was a basket, bladder, or screw press used? (Too clean juice is the current most popular villan in the effort to find the cause of “prem-ox” or premature oxidation in white Burgundy.) What “cut of the juice” was kept to be fermented into wine and what percentage was rejected as being too phenolic due to too much pressing? Was the pressing super-gentle resulting in light clear juice (again a prem-ox issue) or was there enough violence to it to put some solids from the pulp and skins into the juice. Was the juice run from the press straight into the fermenting vessels (whether tanks or barrels or even concrete eggs) or was it first run into a tank to settle and maybe even to oxidize before it was moved to the fermentation vessels.

Were those fermentation vessels temperature controlled stainless steel tanks, oak barrels, or new fangled concrete eggs? If they were oak barrels, how big were they 225 liters (a standard barrel or barrique)? 300 liters (a puncheon)? 500 liters (also called a puncheon)? Or even 600 liters (demi-muids)? And what percentage of the barrels were new? The bigger the barrel, the less flavor it imparts. And the newer the barrels, the more flavor it imparts. If the wine was fermented in tanks, were oak chips or inner-staves added to layer in an oak nuance to a non-barrel-fermented wine. Wines made with no oak contact (from barrels or chips or inner-staves) are called un-oaked or un-wooded.
If oak was used, where did the wood for the barrels (or chips or stave) grow? Some forests have tighter grain and some looser which effects the density and porosity of the wood which effects both evaporation rates and how much flavor the wood imparts. How long was the wood allowed to air dry before coopering? Two years is standard, three years is better, four to five years is best. Longer air-drying means more of the harsher elements have been leeched from the wood and so the longer air dried staves impart a more subtle and somehow cleaner set of flavors. Which cooperage(s) made the barrels? Some coopers (barrel-makers) – such as François Freres – are known for heavier toasting or a distinctive style imparted by their barrels. In some cases it’s possible to discern the cooper in the finished wine.

Was naturally present yeast utilized for fermentation or were the tanks or barrels inoculated with a cultured yeast mix. Natural fermentations sometimes develop more flavors but they may stick (as in stop before all the sugar is fermented) or develop off aromas. Inoculated fermentations are safer and better controlled but sometimes may result in bland or “corporate” tasting wines. Which yeast are “naturally present” can have a lot to do with both where the grapes were grown and how they were farmed and with the location and conditions at the winery. Organic or biodynamic farming would seem to be more conducive to a healthy yeast population in the vineyard. Chemical intensive commercial farming might not. A modern steel and concrete winery with temperature and humidity controls that was designed to be clean and sterile may not develop or maintain a beneficial yeast population. An old gravel-floored, stone and wood building that is naturally cool and humid will develop a diverse population of natural flora including yeasts and malo-lactic bacteria – and a variety of molds. Because these sorts of cellars and their flora are unique, that older-style cellar can add a further sense of place to the wine.

After the alcoholic fermentation, was malo-lactic fermentation (often “ML” or sometimes “malo”) blocked, allowed, or encouraged? If blocked, how? A blocked malo can emphasize fruit but reduce complexity. If allowed, how long was the time gap between the end of alcoholic fermentation and the onset of ML? How long did the malo-lactic fermentation take? Were the wines sulfured and racked after malo finished? ML can add richness and complexity but too much malo-lactic character can hide the fruit and make a wine too rich (too buttery, too creamy, too milky) and even blousy. Was malo stopped before it completed? If so, how? A partial malo-lactic fermentation can give the best of both worlds in adding some richness while retaining some fruit flavors. If ML was encouraged, how – and how soon after the end of primary? Later malo-lactic fermentations tend to “set the fruit” better than earlier malls.

Were the lees stirred? If so, how vigorously and how often? Lees stirring can add richness but as with malo-lactic fermentation and new oak barrels, not all wines have enough fruit to handle that level of winemaking load.
How long was the wine left to age (in barrels or tanks) before assemblage? The longer it was in oak barrels, the more exposure it has had to air. That controlled oxidation makes it a bit darker and a bit richer but also a bit less fruity. To get one thing, you give up a bit of something else.

Was the wine fined and or filtered? Fining can help clarify the wine by removing proteins and other elements that can give it a haze so that it is bright in the bottle. Filtration can do the same thing as well as remove other detrimental elements such as Brettanomyces (a detrimental yeast that can lead to earthy, barnyardy, or even fecal smelling wines) but filtration has the potential to strip some flavor if used too aggressively.
Was the wine cold stabilized? Cold stabilization is the process of chilling the wine in tank before bottling to encourage it to precipitate its tartrates (tartaric acid) in the form of crystals in the tank before bottling. I don’t see where cold stabilization has any possible negative effects but some producers wont do it.

How was the wine bottled? Was it beat up on a high pressure, high speed bottling line or coaxed into the bottle by gravity flow, or somewhere in between.

Was it given more aging in the winery’s cellar after it was bottled?

Tasting can tell you (generally in broader strokes but sometimes in precise detail) the answers to many of these questions so in tasting wine you can often deduce a lot about how it was made. Knowing this sort of information about a wine (especially a Chardonnay) before you taste it allows you to predict how the wine will taste and the more you know, the more accurately you are likely to be (picking wine you like) in making your choices.

The Who of a wine becomes important because someone has to pick which grapes to use (what and where), when to pick, and how the wine will be made. That person’s education, experience, and personal preference is the focusing force that allows the wine to become what it is. Some winemakers are all about the place and others are determined to make the wine into what they want it to be.
It used to be that the more expensive the wine was, the more it tended to reflect the place. With the advent of superstar winemakers and big name consultants (Paul Hobbes, Helen Turley, etc.), a winemaking style may supersede place, which – if the place is very good – is often a shame. There has to be a guide or a shepherd to get the wine through the process and for better or worse, that person may leave his mark whether subtle or obvious.

Do you prefer more fruit and less “winemaking load?” Then you want a cooler climate, more focused Chardonnay fermented and aged in tank with blocked or maybe partial malo-lactic and little or no lees stirring. Or do you prefer a rich buttery-oaky-ripe style of Chardonnay layered with complexity and nuance? Then maybe you want a Chardonnay grown in a riper appellation (place) and fermented in mainly (or even all) new oak barrels with full malo-lactic and extended aging (10-14 months) with lees stirring in barrels – which can all be a lot of “winemaking load” so the quality of the fruit that is the starting point becomes paramount.

So let’s look at two wines that are made with essentially the same techniques: no sulfur at reception, whole clusters pressed with some solids making it into the juice, no settling, a naturally present yeast barrel fermentation (in high quality four-year air-dried, medium-low-toast French oak barrels from tight grain interior France forests made by top coopers) in a cool environment followed with some but not a lot of batonnage (lees stirring), a subsequent natural (un-inoculated) malo-lactic fermentation in those same barrels with sulfuring and racking after ML is complete, another 5-to-8 months in those same barrels before assemblage and bottling un-filtered and un-fined but with cold stabilization on a gravity fed-bottling line.

You might think these two wines have a lot in common – and they do – but let’s also look at the differences. One is made from biodynamically farmed Chardonnay grapes planted in clonal blocks and trellised with a double cordon using vertical shoot positioning (VSP) grown in sedimentary soils (southwest facing) in Carneros in California. The grapes were picked with a potential alcohol of almost 15% and the wine was made in a modern “warehouse” (steel and concrete) winery with concrete floors and complete climate control.

The other was made from Chardonnay grapes organically grown in Puligny Montrachet on east-facing rocky limestone slopes planted to a massal selection (lots of genetic diversity) and trellised with a single cordon and minimal catch wires (but still essentially VSP) with minimal soil. The grapes were picked with a potential alcohol content of 13.5% and the wine was made in an old stone-and-wood-cellar (under-ground in the cool natural rock) with gravel floors (to allow the humidity of the earth to keep the cellar damp which naturally slows evaporation) that has been used for winemaking for over 300 years.

Both wines are from the same fine vintage, let’s say 2009.

So how will the wines taste? Both will be excellent but there will be distinct differences.

Our Carneros Chardonnay will be fairly open and easy to evaluate and appreciate. The fruit profile will show riper citrus layered with tropical fruit. It will be riper, higher in alcohol, and a bit lower in acidity. The sense of place will be there and may manifest with a certain mushroom earthiness. There will be a lot of richness, a creamy texture, and a distinct carpenter-shop oak note. A chef might say the wine is “deconstructed” in that everything is there to see. The wine is of obvious high quality and it is certainly not “Cougar Juice.”

Our Puligny Montrachet is a bit less ripe (but not under-ripe) and so offers a more citrus and apple fruit profile. The sense of place comes through as a sort of limestone minerality (which combined with fruit profile, lower alcohol, and higher acidity might – hopefully – tell me in a blind tasting that this wine is from Burgundy. It is tightly integrated and, even though the wine was fermented in all new oak and went through full malo-lactic fermentation, neither technique is obvious. Maybe it needs decanting. Finally with a fair amount of swirling, it begins to open and show layers of slowly evolving flavor.

Both are excellent and give a high level of pleasure. One may be more of a muscular sports car and the other more of a refined sedan. In terms of longevity, I think the sports car is more fun to drive (initially at least) but will look dated while the sedan (which is still fun to drive) will age into a classic. I actually enjoy both and would be sad if I had to choose only one or the other.

What made these two wines made using essentially the same techniques so different? Place. The stamp of place in both cases was more important than all the winemaking and even the who.

What good is all of this to you? If you know what you like or what you are in the mood for, you can pick the perfect wine by picking the wine from the right place made using the right techniques to yield the combination of flavors, character, and textures you want. Parsing through the details (the Ws) helps you pick the right wine for you – and that is what wine education and wine tasting is all about.

Champagne Friday: LOUIS SACY Cuvee Inedite Blanc de Blancs

I first tasted this new SACY cuvee last summer at VinExpo (June of 2013). It has recently arrived in Texas and I have now had it another three times including with dinner with Carol last night at La Vista (it was delicious with the mussels). The wine is a real treat and in now “in the Champagne rotation” for us. And the price is right.

CuvéeInéditeLOUIS SACY Cuvee Inedite Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut, Champagne, NV ($36.49)
A 12% alcohol 100% Chardonnay Champagne from the single Grand Cru village of Verzy (better known for Pinot Noir) in the Montagne de Reims.  Before champenization, the base wines undergo full malo-lactic fermentation and after get 3 years aging en tirage.   The result is a pale green-gold straw in color and fully sparkling; dry, medium-plus-bodied with fresh acidity and scant but present phenolics.  This is a richer style all Chardonnay Champagne offering riper lemon and other citrus along with integrated mineral and toast. Normally, blanc de blancs is more in the aperitif range of Champagne but this one has the richness to go into the meal. Opens and evolves with time in the glass. BS: 93.

Remember gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne! ~ Sir Winston Churchill during WWI

The Six Ws of Wine

When I was learning to write, my teachers told us to answer “the six Ws:” Who, What, When, Where, Why and hoW. It was and is a good lesson. In writing about or even beginning to understand any particular wine, it is essential to consider those Ws. We’ll start with the first five in order of consideration. What, Who, Where, When and hoW. First, you have to know what you’re drinking. To begin to understand a wine you need to know who made it, where it was made, how it was made, and when it was made. This all seems pretty straight forward but there is a bit more to it.

Knowing what you’re drinking is the first step to understanding it but what does it mean to know what you are drinking? Is the wine red, white, pink, or sparkling? Is it old world or new? Is it Cabernet or Bordeaux (which may also be Cabernet)? Is it Chardonnay or white Burgundy (which is in fact Chardonany). If it is a red from Pauillac in Bordeaux, do you know enough about Pauillac to know what the dominant grape variety is? How about the soil type? How about the most likely winemaking techniques? “What” is important and the more you know about wine, the more the “what” tells you. “What” narrows the field and defines many of the other questions. Assuming you are not tasting blind and so know the basic information present on most wine labels, “what” gives the educated consumer a big head start on at least where, how, and when. Which brings us to who.

Who made the wine? Which is really to ask, “Who is the motive force behind the wine?” Is that person the owner or the winemaker or maybe a consultant or a top manager? At most California wineries, the winemaker (who may also be the owner) is the most important personality or at least the person with the most influence on style. In much of the old world, the winemaker is less important and it is the owner’s active hand that keeps the estate on course producing stylistically consistent wines. Anthony Barton at Ch. Leoville Barton has been a good example of the steady owner as motive force. Until very recently, Bart Araujo in Napa was another such owner example. As owners have become richer (or even corporate), the estate manager has become more important. While François Pinault owns Ch. Latour (along with Domaine de Eugenie in Burgundy, Ch. Grillet in the Rhone, and now Araujo in Napa Valley), his estate manager Frederic Engerer is the motive force behind the wines. (Mr. Pinault may be the motive force behind Mr. Engerer but that is more a discussion for a business school seminar than for a wine essay.)

Another trend in wine has lead to the rise of the consultants. Most top wineries in Bordeaux and many in much of the rest of the world are now using winemaking consultants. In the sense of exposing the winemaking team to outside ideas and keeping a current understanding of how a property fits into the rest of the world of wine, consultants are good thing. And when the consultant lets the wine’s personality (from place and motive force) continue, that is a good thing. But when a consultant so marks a wine that the taster can find the consultant in the wine, that can be a less than god thing. Nevertheless, there are a number of consultants who seem to put there stamp on the wine to the point that they become the “Who.” Names you often hear in this sense of consultant as motive force are (fairly or not) Michel Roland, Stephan Derenencourt, Helen Turley, and Paul Hobbes.

“Where” is really two questions. The obvious question is “Where were the grapes grown?” the other question is “Where was the wine made?” Both places have their influence on the finished wine. It is obvious that where the grapes are grown has a huge influence on how the wine will taste. That “where” can be in the larger sense as in which region or sub region (which in old world wines is more part of the “what” than the “where” because of the more geographic identification of wines as Bordeaux or Burgundy than Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir). Maybe more pertinently, “where” refers to the specific site or terroir where the grapes for this wine are grown. In both grape growing senses, where has the most power in determining what grapes are grown and what vineyard practices are used. If the “where” in question is a good influence and the “who” in question allows the “where” to speak, the place the grapes are grown will give the wine most of its character. The general place (Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rioja, Rhiengau, etc.) will provide the outlines and the specific terroir will fill in the detils.

Where also comes into play in where the wine was made. Winery conditions vary. Some wineries are more technically advanced and other more low or no tech. Some wineries are pristinely clean and others have a more used agricultural look. All of this affects the wine. And how damp or dry, cool or cold a winery or cellar is both determines the flora (yeasts and molds) and other microbials (such as lacto bacillus) present and the evaporation rates during barrel aging. The cellar (winery) is the most underrated and under-discussed aspect of place in wine

Just how was the wine made? Does the producing area have defined or even codified tradition and practice? What is that tradition and practice? Was the process for this particular wine typical of the type or the area? If not, how was it different. Typical Bordeaux fermentation uses pump-overs for cap management and extraction of color and flavor from the grapes. Typical Burgundy fermentation uses punch-downs for cap management and extraction. But some Bordelaise are using punch-downs. And some Burgundians utilize pump-overs. And some of both are combining the two techniques in using both punch-downs and pump-overs on the same tanks (they sometimes refer to this as “punch-overs”). How long was the wine in tank? How large were the tanks? Were they temperature controlled? Were they concrete, wood or stainless? How long in barrels? What percentage of the barrels were new? Where was the wood grown? How long was it dried? How much was it toasted? Etc., etc., etc.

Again, multiple questions start with “when.” The obvious is “When were the grapes grown?” Which is to ask “What vintage?” But you can also ask: When were the grapes picked (actual harvest date(s))? When was the wine made? When was the wine put into barrel? When did malo-lactic fermentation start and end? When was the wine racked? When was it bottled? As “where” (assuming the tradition and practice of the place) may dictate much of the “how,” so also the “when” of the vintage may dictate the answers to many of the other “whens.”

Why should you care?
All of these factors, these Ws, have their affects both large and small on the finished wine. But what is all of this to you? Why (the final W) does this matter. The more and better answers you have to all of these questions, the more likely you are to learn more about the grapes, techniques, and places that yield the wines you like the best. And the more able you will be to consistently pick out wines you will enjoy – which is really the whole point of tasting and learning about (as opposed to just drinking) wine.

An Illustrative Story

One of my many quirks is that I have a great appreciation for Jewish humor. Courtesy of a link sent to me by a like-minded friend, I recently ran across this story and found it to be a great example of the process used in blind tasting to identify an unknown wine. I also hope it will set the stage for two of my coming-soon posts.

After months of negotiation, Avraham, a Jewish scholar from Odessa, was granted permission to visit Moscow. He boarded the train and sat down. At the next stop a young man got on and sat next to him. Avraham looked at the young man and thought …

This fellow doesn’t look like a peasant, and if he isn’t a peasant he probably comes from this area. If he comes from this area, he must be Jewish because this is, after all, a Jewish area. On the other hand, if he is a Jew, where could he be going? I’m the only one from our area to be allowed to travel to Moscow. Wait – just outside Moscow there is a little village called Samvet, and you don’t need special permission to go there. But why would he be going to Samvet? He’s probably going to visit one of the Jewish families there, but how many Jewish families are there in Samvet? Only two – the Bernsteins and the Steinbergs. The Bernsteins are a terrible family, so he must be visiting the Steinbergs. But why is he going? The Steinbergs have only girls, so maybe he’s their son-in-law. But if he is, then which daughter did he marry? Sarah married that nice lawyer from Budapest and Esther married a businessman from Zhadomir, so it must be Sarah’s husband. Which means that his name is Alexander Cohen, if I’m not mistaken. But if he comes from Budapest, with all the anti-Semitism they have there, he must have changed his name. What’s the Hungarian equivalent of Cohen? Kovacs. But if he changed his name he must have some special status. What could it be? A doctorate from the University.

At this point Avraham turned to the young man and said, “How do you do, Dr Kovacs?”
“Very well, thank you, sir” answered the startled passenger. “But how is it that you know my name?”
“Oh,” replied Avraham, “it was obvious”.

(Not Quite) Champagne Friday: YARRABANK Sparkling Cuvee, Victoria, 2004

Yarrabank2004YARRABANK is a joint venture begun in 1993 between Yarra Valley’s (Victoria, Australia) Yering Station and Champagne’s Devaux. The wine is made from grapes grown in both the Yarra Valley and on the Mornington Peninsula.The first wines were based on the 1996 vintage. this 2004 is the current release. Along with the Jansz wines from Tasmania, these are the best sparklers I have had from Australia and some of the best from the new world.

YARRABANK Sparkling Cuvee, Victoria (Australia), 2004 ($19.39)
A 12.5% alcohol methode champenoise blend of 55% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay along with 13% reserve wines aged in large oak, all from Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley aged 48 months en tirage before disgorgement and dosage to 0.34% sugar (very dry). Pale-gold-straw in color and fully sparkling; quite dry, medium-bodied with fresh acidity and scant phenolics. Offers fresh lemony citrus and apple fruit with plenty of toast and enough mineral to keep it focused. The reserve wines supply some richness and more texture in the mouth. Refreshing and quite delicious. Could be mistaken for Champagne and pretty good Champagne at that. More in the aperitif style with real elegance. BS: 92+.

“But Champagne is not drinking.”
said actor David Niven, when asked why he was drinking

Wine of the Week: Ch. PUYGUERAUD, Cotes de Francs, 2010

Ch. Puygueraud has been on my go-to Bordeaux list for as long as I have had a go-to list. It is well grown and well made under the direction of one of the right bank’s best estate managers – Nicolas Thienpont. It tastes like what it is and where it’s from and there is no hint of over-manipulation or over-extraction or over-pricing. Instead, Ch. Puygueraud is solid and reliable and comforting all the while serving as a reference standard for right bank reds in a certain price range. If the appellation were fancier, the wine – exactly as it is – would sell for a lot more.

The chateau and its vineyards are located on the eastern edge of the Cotes de Francs (a Right Bank appellation which is itself located on the eastern edge the whole of Bordeaux). The soils are clay over limestone. Everything is done right but there is no fussiness.

Puygueraud2010Ch. PUYGUERAUD, Cotes de Francs, 2010 ($21.84)
A 14.5% alcohol blend of 70% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Malbec fermented using pump-over in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks and aged 14 months in French oak barrels (40% new). Deep purple in color with well formed legs; dry, medium-full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium plus phenolics. Juicy, lively, mostly black fruit with a limestone terroir note; supple dusty oak and accents of black pepper, black flowers, red flowers, cocoa, and dark spice. Long finish, fresh, alive-in-the-mouth, complete. It might repay some keeping (3 or so more years) but why would you? It is delicious now. BS: 91.

A Passion for Pink Champagne

It used to be a cliché in the wine business that Valentine’s Day was the time of year to promote Rosé Champagne. More often than not, the “champagne” (little “c” intended) promoted was André or Paul Masson or Taylor New York or (maybe) Korbel. It was fizzy and pink but it wasn’t Champagne. Back then, there was some real Rosé Champagne in the market but no one (trade or consumer) much knew what to do with it. My, how times have changed.

VCPVR2004Today, Rosé Champagne is riding a more than decade long wave of increasing popularity all over the world and especially in the US. Rosé is recognized for its extra weight and richness and for its ability to accompany a wider range of foods to go deep into – or even all the way through – a meal. Who is driving the Rosé bus? Well, mostly women. And that is also who drives the Valentine’s Bus. The men may be doing most of the spending but the shopping list (check list?) comes from the ladies. Reservations? Card(s)? Gift? Chocolate? Rosé Champagne? See what I mean?

In my case, the reservations have given way to prime tenderloin (served with a great red wine) at home but the evening still starts with Rosé Champagne and ends with chocolate. (There are three reasons for this change: amateur night with too many drinkers out on the road, crowded, over-loaded, often over-priced restaurants with restricted menus and seatings, and the fact that we can drink better wine for less money at home (and still have a simple but elegant meal at our own pace).

Here’s a list of some of the best Rosé in the market and a bit about each. Some are richer and some are more elegant. There is a Rosé for every style, purpose, and budget. Ok, I’ll admit that even the least expensive of these can be a bit of a splurge but it is Valentines Day (which only comes around once a year) and you don’t want to miss checking that box on the check (shopping) list, now do you?

TAITTINGER Cuvee Prestige Rosé, Champagne, NV ($64.39)
A 12% alcohol blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with 15% Red from Ambonnay and Bouzy to give it its Rosé color.   Orange-salmon in color and fully sparkling; dry, medium-plus-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and very light phenolics.  Lots of earthy red fruit with softer style but has the citrus to keep it fresh. Much more on the food Champagne side of things. BS: 91.

MOET & CHANDON Brut Rosé NV, Champagne, NV ($51.89)
A 12% alcohol blend of 40% – 50% Pinot Noir (10% red wine), 30% – 40% Pinot Meunier: (10% red wine), 10% – 20% Chardonnay (don’t you hate it when they won’t tell you what the actual blend is?)   aged 21 months en tirage and dosed to 0.9% residual sugar.      Salmon in color and fully sparkling dry, medium-bodied with fresh acidity and scant phenolics.  Cleaner and fresher style Rosé but more fine and elegant than most. Classic Chamapgne Rose medium red fruit with enough citrus. Manages to be both fresh and satisfying. Splits the difference between white Champagne and the richer Rosés. BS: 92.

NICOLAS FEUILLATTE Brut Rose NV, Champagne, NV ($43.99)
A 12% alcohol blend of 10% Chardonnay, 60% Pinot noir, 30% Pinot Meunier with 18% of the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier being the red wine in the blend. 25% reserve wines. Aged 3 years en tirage.   Sensory: Salmon Rosé in color and fully sparkling; dry, medium-bodied with balanced acidity and scant phenolics.  Supple, earthy, toasty, rich, ripe, red fruit rosé offering real depth. Fine food fizz. BS: 92+.

CHARLES HEIDSIECK Rosé Reserve, Champagne, NV ($69.29)
A 12% alcohol Pinot Noir 30-40%, Chardonnay 25-30%, Pinot Meunier 30-40% from vineyards all over Champagne with over 35% composed of reserve wines with the cuvee aged en tirage for 36 months.    Pale-orange-onion skin in color and fully sparkling; dry, medium-bodied with fresh acidity.  Very pale style of Rose offering more citrus and a bit of red fruit. Smooth and rounded with lots of freshness. Fine feel with just enough richnesss. Lovely. If you didn’t know it was Rosé, you probably wouldn’t know it was Rosé. BS: 93.

BOLLINGER Rosé, Champagne, NV ($94.39)
A 12% alcohol blend of 62% Pinot Noir, 24% Chardonnnay, and 14% Pinot Meunier (all but the Pinot Meunier is 1er cru or grand cru) initially fermented in a mix of small Stainless Steel Tanks and Oak Barrels with only 6% red wines added and aged over 36 months en tirage and finished brut with a 0.75 residual sugar dosage.   Pale-copper-salmon in color and fully sparkling; , medium-bodied with fresh acidity and scant phenolics and a very long finish. Earthy rich dusty red fruit. Juicy, toasty, dusty. Rich satisfying food Champagne. Absolutely lovely. Delicious.. Excellent. BS: 93+.

VEUVE CLICQUOT PONSARDIN Brut Rosé, Champagne, NV ($55.39)
A 12% alcohol blend of mostly Pinot Noir with some Pinot Meunier and a bit more Chardonnay with 12% red Pinot Noir added before the second fermentation.    The wine is salmon-orange in color and fully sparkling dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and scant phenolics.  Tasted with several other Rosés, this is a richer and “foodier” Champagne Rosé with lots of red fruit (along with enough citrus) and a supple toasty richness from lots of reserve wines. Still plenty fresh with a lovely feel. Deeply satisfying. This is Champagne to go with steak tartar or carpaccio or even simple pasta dishes (but hold the red sauce). BS: 93+.

BARONS de ROTHSCHILD Brut Rosé, Champagne, NV ($118.74)
A 12.5% alcohol blend of 85% Chardonnay with 15% still red Pinot. Noir.  The Chardonnay is from the Cote du Blanc (Avize, Cramant, Mesnil-Sur-Oger, Oger and Vertus – all Grand crus), The Pinot Noir is from the Montagne de Reims. (40% of the total comes from reserve wines). Aged on the lees for 9 months.      Sensory: salmon-orange in color; dry, medium-bodied with balanced acidity and very light phenolics.  Richer with more red fruit. Lots of fruit and lots of toasty richness with enough chalky minerality to keep it elegant. Long and again, quite food friendly. This is Champagne to keep. BS: 94.

RUINART Rose, Champagne, NV ($80.74)
A 12.5% alcohol blend of 55% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay all from premiers crus vineyards including the estate vineyards in Sillery and Brimont selected vineyards in the Côte de Blancs and the Montagne de Reims.     Pink-orange-salmon in color and fully sparkling; dry, medium-plus-bodied with  fresh acidity, light phenolics.    Earthy, lovely rich with red fruit. Great length and super feel. Despite the Chardonnay content, this is almost red wine masquerading as Champagne. BS: 95.

PERRIER-JOUET Blason Rose, Champagne, NV ($75.99)
A 12% alcohol blend of 40% Pinot Noir, 30% Pinot Meunier, 30% Chardonnay.  Grapes are pressed in the Grand Cru village of Cramant (in the Cote de Blancs) in Perrier-Jouët’s traditional wooden presses. After it is racked, the clear juice is transported to Épernay for primary fermentation in stainless steel tanks. After Champenization and 6 years of age, the wine is disgorges and dosed to 11 grams of sugar per liter (about 1.1%).   Sensory: Salmon-pink in color and fully sparkling; dry, medium-full-bodied with softly balanced (for a bubbly) acidity and light phenolics.  Richer and fresher with fine freshness. Riper red fruit with just a touch of citrus. Darker floral and subtle toast.     Bear Note: This is much more vinous tasting than most Rosé Champagnes. Delicious. This is a GREAT food rose. Excellent. BS: 95.

PERRIER JOUET Belle Epoque Rose, Champagne, 2004 ($282.79)
A blend of 45% Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims and 55% Chardonnay from Cramant and Avize in the Cote de Blancs aged 6 years en tirage (on the yeasts) and finished with a 0.9% dosage    Sensory: Copper-salmon in color and fully sparkling; dry, medium light-bodied with freshl acidity and scant phenolics.  Rich with notes of red fruit and citrus to go with mineral earth and subtle toast. Lovely, integrated, complete. Delicious food friendly Rosé. BS: 96.

VEUVE CLICQUOT PONSARDIN Vintage Rosé, Champagne, 2004 ($77.69)
A 12.5% alcohol blend of  62% Pinot Noir, 8% Pinot Meunier, and 30% Chardonnay (The same base blend as the 2004 Vintage) with 15% red Pinot Noir from Bouzy made using straight forward methode champenoise.   Sensory: pale salmon in color and fully sparkling; dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and scant phenolics.  On the initial taste, this is the best wine of the night. The others may wake up and pass it in a bit but this is showing the best fresh from the bottle. Mixed red cherry-berry and citrus fruits beautifully integrated with earth and toast and richness. A delight in the mouth. Satisfying, long, delicious, and complete. GREAT food Champagne.  BS: 97.

WINE 201: A Four-Week Course on Wine Beyond the Basics

For the last few years, I have offered (at the Wine School at l’Alliance Française) a four-week introduction to wine and wine tasting that a lot of folks refer to as Wine 101. In that class we covered wines basics in a way to help the student organize what they already know about wine and fill in the holes so they have the basics down pat. This new class will start there with the assumption that you have a good grasp of the basics. Welcome to …

WINE 201:  A Four-Week Course on Wine Beyond the Basics

BearClassPlease join Spec’s fine wine buyer Bear Dalton for this new four-week Wine Basics course. Wine 201 is for those who have a developed interest in wine. The class will work on understanding and improving tasting skills. In order to understand wine today, you have to understand its roots in Europe. This class will focus on the old world presenting classic wines in an organized fashion. We’ll spend 2.2 weeks looking just at France. While focused on the more avid wine consumer, this class would be a good exposure for a service professional looking to move more into the wine side of the restaurant business or anyone in or looking to move into the wholesale or retail wine trade. The focus of each class will be more on the regions covered and how their wines have influenced the rest of the world of wines than on individual producers. The wines tasted will be “classic” examples chosen for their typicity of both variety(s) and region.

Week 1 (02/10/14): Tasting Review. Part one of the wines of France: Bordeaux and the Loire. Why is Bordeaux so important? The power and popularity of Cabernet and Merlot. Ten wines will be tasted.

Week 2 (02/17/14): Part two of the wines of France: Burgundy, Champagne, the Rhone. Ten wines will be tasted. The relationship between these regions and the relationship between these wines and their new world equivalents will be explored.

Week 3 (02/24/14): Alsace, Germany, and Italy. Ten wines will be tasted focusing on the classic wines that both express and transcend a local identity.

Week 4 (03/03/11): Spain and Portugal. Ten wines will be tasted with a strict focus on the classics including Tempranillo, Garnacha, Cava, Port, and Sherry.

The four-week Wine 201 will cost $240 total per person cash ($252.63 regular) for all four sessions. The course will meet at 7pm on four Mondays: February 10th, 17th and 24th and March 3rd of 2014. To reserve your spot for this unique four-week class, please contact Marlo Ammons at 832-660-0250 or Marlo

All sessions of this class will be held at l’Alliance Française, the French cultural center in Houston. Located at 427 Lovett Blvd., l’Alliance is on the southeast corner of Lovett and Whitney (one block south of Westheimer and two blocks east of Montrose).