A Handy Guide to Festive Fizz

champagne glassesThough we’re fans of bubbles all year long, there’s something special about ringing in the new year with a glass of something festive and fizzy.

Unfortunately, because sparkling is usually reserved for celebrations, it’s a misunderstood category – what the heck does Grand Cru mean?  Is vintage better than non-vintage?  And how do you open the stuff without putting someone’s eye out?

Firstly, true Champagne can only come from the tiny region of Champagne in Northern France, and must be made in the traditional method and meet certain quality specifications.  Everything else is sparkling wine.  But being Champagne doesn’t automatically make a wine good, and being a mere ‘sparkling wine,’ doesn’t make a wine substandard.   It’s New Years, though, so let’s concentrate on Champagne.

Vintage or NV? The first distinction to make with Champagne is between vintage and non-vintage.  Non-vintage is the most common style, and usually the least expensive and most consistent.  That ubiquitous yellow bottle is an example of a non-vintage bottling.  Usually labeled with an ‘NV,’ non-vintage Champagne is a blend of a selection of base wines (still wine that hasn’t become fizzy yet) from several vintages.  The master blender at a given Champagne house uses his judgement and palate to create a consistent style from year to year, and this blending method helps him do this.

Vintage Champagne is Champagne made from a specific years’ harvest, just like most of the still wine we’re used to.  In Champagne, it’s usually made only in exceptional years and meant to showcase differences in vintage character, as opposed to the style-of-the-house like non-vintage bottlings.

“Grand Cru.” When you see a designation like “Grand Cru” on a bottle, like you would with some of these delicious grower Champagnes, that means that all of the grapes that went into the wine come from villages in Champagne with the highest quality ranking.  In Champagne, the villages are ranked, as opposed to, say, Bordeaux, where the producers are ranked, or Burgundy, where the vineyards are ranked.

And what do we mean by “grower?” Historically, grape growers in Champagne sold their grapes to big Champagne houses, usually under long-term contracts. These Champagne houses then made the Champagne, blending cuvees to produce their unique style of Champagne, year after year (and spending money marketing  that brand). Over the years, more and more growers are making their own Champagnes. These can be better deals, because this eliminates a level in the production chain, and often, the grower doesn’t spend as much on marketing and packaging.

How to Open a Bottle. Many people shy away from Champagne not only because of the expense, but because of stage fright when it comes to opening the bottle.  There are a few different methods to opening sparkling wine, but the two most important things to remember are to always point the wine away from people (and anything breakable!), and to make sure the wine is nice and cold.

And remember, the object is to keep as much of the fizz in the bottle as possible, so you want a quiet hiss as opposed to a loud pop.  Here’s a video on how to properly open sparkling wine. Wishing you wonderful celebrations for the New Year!

Finding the Good Stuff: The Big Business of Red Blends

grape-harvestRed Blends are one of the fastest growing categories in the wine world, but David Jeffrey’s Cab-Merlot blend from Sonoma’s cool Chalk Hill AVA shows how much diversity exists in this category and how misunderstood it is.

Nielsen called red blends one of the fastest growing segments in the wine business, reporting $900 million in sales. But the kinds of red blends that account for this dramatic growth are a far cry from a handmade, structured red blend from a traditional array of grape varieties.

Avoiding the Dumping Ground 
Because this style has become so popular, ‘red blends’ have become a dumping ground for jammy, cynically made, kitchen-sink blends of whatever wineries can get a good deal on, pump full of Super Purple, and dump into a bottle with a cute label.

At a big-box store looking to grab something for a potluck or gift exchange? (we forgive you) Do yourself a favor and stay away from anything that calls itself something like “Handsome Stranger” and features a list of grapes as long as your arm that you’ve never heard of going together before.

A History of Growing Together 

So how do you know that you’re getting an elegant, traditionally made wine and not a gimmicky critter bottle? Look for grape varieties that have a history of growing together. Calluna winemaker David Jeffrey trained with superstar winemaker and consultant Alain Raynaud at Ch Quinault l’Enclos in Bordeaux.

When he planted his Chalk Hill estate in 2005, he decided to plant all five traditional Bordeaux varieties because his experiences in Bordeaux showed him how well these grapes work together.

Wines that come from a specific place are another hallmark of real wine. Jeffrey maintains that his red blends are simply wines that reflect their site, rather than being specifically Left or Right Bank Bordeaux style. Chalk Hill’s white volcanic ash soil and cooler temperatures in his hands give wines of quiet, elegant power that promise years of pleasure ahead.

 

From “Rat’s Jump” to Sublime – Getting to Know Meursault

meursaultNo one knows for sure where the name “Meursault” comes from, but in the village here’s the story they tell.

The Romans had a fort up on the Meursault hill and near it was a stream. The soldiers observed mice coming up to the stream and then jumping over the cold water to get from one side to the other. They soon began calling the stream “Muris Saltus” – or the “rat jump” – and the name eventually stuck to the small village growing beneath the fort.

Whatever the source of the name, the three communes of Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault make up the finest collection of Chardonnay vineyards in the world. But with no “Montrachet” to add caché, Meursault has spent much of its history playing second fiddle to Puligny and Chassagne.

Comparing Puligny and Meursault
In fact, Meursault’s wines are no less outstanding than Puligny to the south, but the wines are a bit different. Fine Puligny is peachy, citrusy, floral, and sports a deep, pervasive, wet rock minerality with a strong citric drive.

Meursault, in contrast, is richer, even fatter, with more golden fruit – pear, apple, apricot – and classically shows a wonderful layer of buttery richness – “buttered and toasted nut” is a common tasting note here. In part the differences are a reflection of terrior.

Meursault and Puligny’s vineyards are both rich in limestone, but the types are different (Pierre de Chassagne in Puligny vs. Comblachien for Meursault). More importantly, Puligny’s best vineyards are higher and more exposed while Meursault’s are lower and more sheltered.

Digging Cellars
But a fluke in the terrior of the villages themselves – vs. the vineyards – plays a role, too. The water table in the village of Puligny is high, so digging deep cellars is difficult and rare. Limited cellar space means most Puligny-Montrachet needs to be in and out of barrel before the next harvest comes in. Or, as is often the case, taken by negotiants to more spacious cellars in Beaune for elevage.

michelot-cellarIn Meursault, the soils are dry and soft, making cellars fairly easy to dig. And over the past 50 years, negotiants have been willing to pay much more for wine from Puligny than Meursault, leading more Meursault growers to make and sell their own finished wine. Winemaker Francois Mikulski tells the story of bringing in his first crop and then trying to sell his wine in barrel to the negotiants. The prices he was offered were so low that he went to the bank and borrowed enough to buy bottles and corks and sell the wine himself!

With cellar space ample and negotiant prices low, more Meursault growers not only made their own wine – they could afford to allow it to spend more than 10 months in barrel to gain richness, complexity, and notes of nutty deliciousness. So today’s Meursault reflects both the unique character of its vineyards and a funny quirk of Burgundy economics!

A Benchmark Storms Back
Writing in 2008, Burgundy expert Clive Coats said, “Nearly 40 years ago, when I was studying for the Master of Wine examination, one of my tutors recommended two estates which produced yardstick white Burgundy: Michelot in Meursault and Sauzet in Puligny-Montrachet.”

That “yardstick” status came from the hard work of Bernard Michelot, a fifth generation winegrower who modernized the winemaking, increased the use of new barrels, and tended his large set of vineyard holdings with meticulous care.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, though, the estate failed to keep up with the ever improving quality of its neighbors. As Bernard aged, he was forced to split up the estate between his children and sell off some vineyards to deal with France’s punitive inheritance taxes. Daughter Genevieve Michelot took 7ha and founded Michelot Mere et Fil. Son-in-law Jean-François Mestre and his wife, Odile Michelot, kept Domaine Michelot but were forced to place some of the wine and vineyards in a separate cellar, Domaine Mestre-Michelot. The separate cellars and Bernard’s continued presence (he passed away earlier this year at age 99) perhaps served as barriers to further innovation.

michelot-familyOver the past decade, though, Domaine Michelot has come roaring back. Jean-François has been allowed to merge the two separate cellars – so all the wine is Domaine Michelot now. He and his son Nicolas have converted all of their vineyards to organic farming. Grass is allowed to grow between the rows to stress the vines and then plowed under to enrich the soils. Most chemical treatments have been dropped and copper and sulfur use have been reduced substantially.

michelot-mersautIn the cellars, Mestre has slightly increased the amount of new oak used – around 33% for the 1er Cru wines – but also moved to larger barrels to prevent too much oak flavor in the wine. All of the wines – from Bourgogne Blanc up – spend 12 full months in barrel before wracking by gravity into tank. There they rest for an additional 4-6 months to harmonize and settle before bottling.

The result of all these changes: superb wines that are once again “textbook” (or “yardstick” if you prefer) Meursault. Rich, full of ripe fruit, creamy in texture with plenty of vibrancy, and laced with plenty of toasted buttered nut goodness. Do not miss them!

Grand Cru Champagnes from Grower Eric Rodez

eric-rodezMany of you have joined us in enjoying the Grand Cru Champagnes of vigneron Eric Rodez for years now. The wines have always been excellent, but seem to have been getting better and better over the past few years.

With the past two years’ releases, though, Eric’s handcrafted Champagnes have taken a new step up – they are simply the best wines we’ve seen from him ever and certainly rank among the elite in all of Champagne.

Eric’s vineyard work certainly is part of the story. The Rodez family has farmed its 15 acres of Grand Cru vineyard in Ambonnay – one of Champagne’s top growing regions – for more than nine generations. When Eric took over in 1982, he quickly moved to what he called “ecological” farming, eliminating the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to create a healthier vineyard. Now he’s moved to full biodynamic practices to bring quality up further still.

rodez-glassAnd, his winemaking remains meticulous and heavily influenced by his early training at Krug. He’s divided his vineyard up into nearly three dozen separate plots and harvests and ferments each grape variety within each plot separately – nearly 70 separate lots in all! Once the base wines are made, some are held in tank while others spend time in used barrels to take on more complexity and depth.

For a producer his size, Eric is unusual in his willingness to hold back “reserve wines” from previous vintages for use in all of his cuvees. Grand Vintages is the benchmark, this year including seven vintages going back to 2000. But even his Rosé and Crayeres Champagnes get a healthy dose of reserve wine. While most “grower Champagne” contains only two or, at most, three vintages, Eric uses four years in his Rosé and up to 40% older wine (sometimes back five vintages) in Crayeres!

rodez-champagnesThe result of all this hard work and careful blending is an astounding line-up of Grand Cru Champagnes in a style somewhere between Krug and Bollinger. These are Champagnes for wine lovers – plenty of power and depth married to finesse and elegance.

And, they are Champagnes for value lovers, too! Unlike more famous name Champagnes, Eric wastes no money on fancy packaging, gift sets, or advertising. And, by buying directly from Eric’s importer, Olivier Daubresse, we’ve cut out the middle man and can bring you this fantastic line-up of world class Champagne at rock-bottom prices.

If you only buy Champagne by the case once this year, these are the wines to buy.

Tall Vines: From Pure Power to Powerful Purity

jean-royer-rugby

Winemaker Jean-Marie played Rugby with top wine consultant Philippe Cambie.

Jean-Marie Royer reclaimed his family’s vineyards (leased out after his father’s early death) and began making wine in the mid-1980s.

With help from a former Rugby pal (now one of France’s top-tier consultants), Philippe Cambie, Jean-Marie made rich, bold, flamboyant wines – in other words, completely typical Chateauneuf du Pape.

Seeking Elegance and Freshness. About 10 years ago, Jean-Marie realized that he wanted more elegance and freshness in his wines and less alcoholic heat and jamminess. With help from Cambie, he adopted an unusual farming approach, allowing the vines to grow very tall – most growers “hedge” the vine tops to force the vines to put more energy into ripening fruit.
jean-royer-vines
In the winery, fermentation temperatures were lowered substantially, allowing for slow, gentle extraction of color and structure and flavor without blowing off the young wines’ perfume. Each varietal now ages in a mixture of old barrels and concrete tank before Royer and Cambie meet to taste and develop trial blends (and talk a LOT of rugby!).

Beautiful CdP – If You Can Find It! The critical praise for Jean-Marie Royer’s wines just keeps piling up, even as the wines get harder and harder to find here in the USA. After lauding Domain Jean Royer’s 2014 Chateauneufs for being “elegant, distinctly pure” and “filled with pure Grenache love,” both Wine Advocate and Vinous urged readers to try to find these wines – but warned they’re hard to come by in the USA.

“All of the 2014s from this estate are downright impressive and well worth seeking out.” – Jeb Dunnuck, Wine Advocate, October 2016.

“The Châteauneufs of Isabel and Jean-Marie Royer have consistently been among the appellation’s most graceful and Burgundy-like bottlings for the better part of the last two decades…Their wines enjoy a strong local following and a growing list of private customers from across Europe, and finding the wines outside the Continent is no easy task.” – Josh Raynolds, Vinous, April 2016

We first encountered Jean-Marie’s wines back in 2013 as the 2010s reached our market – and we were blown away. But with very little wine allocated to our area (and with me taking home significant chunks of our annual allotment), we’ve never had the ability to promote them widely. A visit with Jean-Marie last year seems to have fixed that, and our friends at Potomac Selections and broker Tom Calder have helped us get the wines to you at simply stunning prices. Snap ’em up!

Grand Grüner from Austria’s Beautiful Wachau Region

You probably already know that Grüner Veltliner is Austria’s signature white grape, and you may well have tried some of the very popular wines we feature every year like Anton Bauer Grüner Veltliner Gmörk, Steininger Grüner Kamptal DAC, and the always popular Paul D Grüner in the liter bottle. All of those are crisp, refreshing wines with pretty orchard fruit, a touch of minerality, a bit of citrus, and classic Grüner notes of sweet pea and white pepper.
tegernseerhof-vineyard2
The very best of Austria’s Grüner Veltliners get a bit more serious. When the wine comes from older vines growing on the windblown glacial soils called loess soils on steep vineyards with great exposures to the sun, Grüner gets richer, deeper, and much more intensely delicious.

And, when those old-vine, steeply sloped sites are in the region called the Wachau, well you get some of Austria’s greatest Grüner of all.

A Grant from the Holy Roman Emperor
Martin Mittlebach’s family arrived in the Wachau village of Dürnstein from their home in Bavaria nearly 100 years ago. There they took on the mantle of one of Austria’s oldest winegrowing communities.   Holy Roman emperor Henry II granted the Benedictine monastery of Tegernsee land in the steeply sloped Wachau valley. In 1176, the monks built their winery and christened it Tegernseerhof, and the Mittlebachs continue that heritage today.

Martin and his family farm sites across the Wachau, but their pride and joy are six profound vineyards rising up over the Danube river plain, including one – Zwerithaler – where the vines are 100 years old. They bottle some profound Riesling and Grüner Veltliner from these sites, wines that year-after-year earn some of the highest accolades in Austria.

High Altitude, High-end Grüner
tegernseerhoff-bottleBergdistel is Martin’s introduction to the joys of high-altitude, high-end Grüner, designed to showcase the quality of the vintage, the Wachau, and the Tegernseerhof house style. Martin selects lots from each of his best Grüner vineyards, some at lower altitudes for tropical fruit and richness, others from higher, steeply sloped, sites for cut and minerally depth.

Just like Martin’s top wines, Bergdistel carries the Wachau’s highest quality designation: Smaragd. To borrow an old American advertising slogan, “With a name like ‘Smaragd,’ it has to be good.”   In the 1980s, the growers of the Wachau came together to create some of the world’s toughest rule for quality in grape growing and winemaking. Only the region’s very best wines – those of superior ripeness and acidity – get the extra-long corks, the emerald lizard emblem on the bottle neck, and the (unpronounceable to non-German speakers) “Smaragd” designation on the label.

Many Smaragd-level Wachau Grüner Veltliners of this quality and character come with $40, $70, even $100 price tags. At his regular $30 price, Martin’s Bergdistel is already a fantastic value. At our $21.98 bottle and $19.98/ea six-pack price…well, you’d be “Smaragd” not to miss it!

Willamette Valley’s Ken Wright: ‘Terroirist’ (the 2015 vintage)

ken-wrightKen is one of the most impressive – even formidable – winemakers I’ve ever met, and every time I talk with him, I come away astonished at how much he knows about Oregon vineyards and Pinot Noir. There’s a reason Wine Spectator put him the cover and called him “A Master of Pinot Noir in Oregon” last year.

Ken is one of the “old hands” of Oregon Pinot Noir. He founded Panther Creek winery in 1986 and made the wines there until selling the estate. He opened Ken Wright Cellars in 1993 in a converted glove factory in Carlton, Oregon, making the first two vintages of Domaine Serene’s wines in 1993 and 1994 while starting his own production. Within just a few years, Ken’s wines were the most sought-after in Oregon.

Expressing Each Site. Ken is quick to explain that, in his view, the whole purpose of Pinot Noir is to express the distinctive characteristics of each site it occupies. He was the first to start the push for creating distinct Willamette Valley AVAs and today makes a dozen different vineyard-designate Pinot Noirs. As Ken says, “Ken Wright Cellars is devoted to showcasing the inherent quality of selected vineyard sites. With a clarity and breadth that is unequaled by other varieties, we believe Pinot noir best expresses the character of these sites. Rather than stamping wine with a varietal trademark, we see Pinot noir as a vehicle for conveying the aroma, flavor and texture of the location in which it is grown.”

While showcasing “terroir” is important, the wines have to taste good, too. Again and again, Ken has demonstrated his ability to make highly rated Willamette Valley Pinot Noir even in the most difficult conditions. Writing about Ken’s work in the hot 2006 vintage, Wine Spectator said, “In any Oregon vintage, you can count on Ken Wright making some of the most elegant and refined Pinot Noirs. His wines, all single-vineyard bottlings, always have finesse and tremendous polish, even in an extra ripe vintage like 2006. Where others made big, heady wines, Wright managed to keep most of his cuvées bright and juicy.”

And, talking about Ken’s wines from the challenging 2004 vintage, Robert Parker said, “There are not many Pinot Noir winemakers who can make six separate cuvees, and have five of them nearly outstanding. In fact, this exceptional success rate puts Ken Wright in the company of such Burgundy luminaries as Laurent Ponsot, Lalou Bize-Leroy, Hubert Lignier, J. J. Confuron, and Claude Dugat.”

So, when Ken gets his hands on material like he had in 2015, watch out!

Another Hot, Fine Harvest. 2015 marked the second straight year of intense heat and limited rainfall all across the Willamette Valley. Just like in 2014, the growing season started early and growers quickly became concerned that ripening would move faster than flavor development. So, once again, they left a heavy load of gapes on the vine to force sugar accumulation to be spread across more berries and did minimal hedging, leaf pulling, and trimming.

I remember walking Abbott Claim with Ken Wright in late July of 2015 and looking at his normally neat and trim vines with their shaggy, un-hedged, tops and remarkable number of bunches per vine. “Will you drop fruit before harvest?” he was asked. “If all the grapes on these vines ripen fully, I think it would be wrong, almost criminal, to leave some on the ground. And, I think they’re all going to make it all the way this year.”

Ken, of course, was right. It was a very early harvest and Ken and others brought in the largest Pinot Noir crop in Oregon history. As in 2014, the fruit was in perfect condition with virtually no disease and little in the way of sunburn or desiccation. One key difference: after the shockingly huge harvest of 2014, wineries were ready to deal with 2015’s record-setting yields by having plenty of staff, fermenters, and barrels cleaned, set up, and ready to go.

ken-wright-winesVintage ’15: 2014 Ripeness with More Freshness and Spine. How do the 2015s compare to the 2014s? I tasted ’15s from barrel and ’14s from barrel and bottle last February at a half-dozen of our favorite wineries. Both vintages are yummy, but the ’14s clearly are more about their ripe, cheerful, fruit and are most exciting for their immediate to near-term deliciousness. As Ken said about the 2014s last year, “They’re rich, lush, lower in acidity, super agreeable already. This may not be the longest-lived vintage, but the wines are pleasurable.”

In contrast, the 2015s seem to have a touch less alcohol, a touch more acidity, and significantly more texture (whether the winemaker works with whole clusters or not). You’ll love tasting the 2015s when they arrive, especially wines’ like Ken’s where the lush fruit tends to cover and cloak the tannins. But where the 2014s will be at their best over the next 5 years or so, you’ll be pulling out and delighting in the 2015s for a decade-plus.

How good is 2015 overall? As Josh Raynolds of Vinous reported last year, “Conditions throughout 2015 were just as warm and dry as in the previous vintage and, according to growers that I’ve spoken to in recent weeks, musts are dark, aromatics are explosive, flavors are concentrated and tannins are strong.”

When Neal Martin of The Wine Advocate was in Oregon tasting 2013s, he wrote:

“There were a couple of very well-established Oregon winemakers who discretely opined that … 2015 is destined to be crowned the benchmark Oregon vintage.”

The Wine Spectator’s Harvey Steadman agrees, writing in late 2015:

 “A significant percentage of the 2015s had completed fermentation by the time I visited Willamette Valley in early October. Their freshness and deftness will invite comparisons to top-tier vintages such as 2012 and 2008, once they complete their cellaring.”

Is 2015 the “best ever” vintage here? Could be – but it’s certainly a very fine vintage indeed that’s well worth your attention!