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.