Champagne, Cava, Cremant … What’s The Difference?

champagne glassesWe get lots of questions about the names and terms used for different sparkling wines, so here’s a quick primer for anyone who is feeling a touch confused.

The big name in the field is Champagne, a label that used to be applied to many different kinds of fizz. Today – after years of negotiation and some fairly aggressive litigation by the Champenoise – the “Champagne” name is restricted to wines that:

  • Come from the Champagne region of France
  • Are made from seven authorized grapes (but mainly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and the red Pinot Menieur)
    Get their bubbles from a secondary fermentation that takes place in bottle
  • Rest on the lees – dead yeast cells – from that secondary fermentation for at least 15 months for non-vintage or 30 months for vintage dated wines

The story of how Champagne was first created and popularized is long and winding and full of myth (no, Dom Perignon did not “invent” Champagne – he tried to stop it from fizzing!), but it’s ended up with Champagne holding the title of, arguably, the best sparkling wine in the world and certainly the most expensive.

Grower Champagne. This term refers to Champagne made from grapes that the estate also grew. Many Champagne houses make Champagne from fruit they purchase from growers. Veuve Cliquot and Moen & Chandon are two examples. These are certainly fine Champagnes, but over the last few decades there’s been a movement by more growers to make Champagne themselves. The price can be lower too!

R Dumont Solera Champagne.pngSolera Champagne. Most fine Champagnes get their complexity from aging of the base wines in oak barrels and/or extended aging “on the lees” in bottle after the secondary fermentation (where the bubbles come from!). But there’s a third approach called “solera.” This week’s featured R Dumont Solera Reserve Brut is a good example: After harvesting their 1991 vintage grapes, the Dumont family filled a single stainless steel cask with their remarkable Chardonnay. Each year, they took about a third of the wine out and used it in their NV Brut, replacing what they took with Chardonnay wine from that year’s vintage. After ten years, they released their first solera, and the release we’re featuring was pulled in early 2016, so it includes wines from 25 vintages!

So while drinking “real” Champagne is a treat – and something we all should do more often! – it’s not surprising that many other sparkling wines have emerged to try to slake our thirst for fine fizz at more reasonable prices.

France’s Cremant. The term was originally used to denote wines from Champagne that had a little less fizz than regular Champagne, but that style and usage have fallen away today. Now the French use “Cremant” to designate sparkling wines made outside of Champagne using the Champagne method of secondary fermentation in bottle. You’ll find Cremant wines from all across France, many – like Cremant d’Alsace – using very different grapes from Champagne (e.g. Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, or even Riesling).

Sparklers from Italy, Spain and the U.S. Many Americans start their sparkling wine adventure with crisp, fruity wines from Italy like Moscato di Asti or Prosecco. We love them both, but neither uses Champagne grapes or even the Champagne method to create fizz. These wines undergo secondary fermentation in a large tank and are then bottled with the fizz already in the wine. It’s a less expensive process that won’t give you the same texture or toasty flavors found in méthode champenoise wines.

The best of Spain’s sparkling Cava wines can deliver much more Champagne quality at a fraction of the price. These wines are made using the méthode champenoise (although they’re not allowed to use that term on the label – nothing to suggest competition with Champagne is allowed!), and can show some of the creaminess and yeasty, toasty notes we love in Champagne. But Cava is usually made with different grapes – macabeu, parellada and xarel·lo are most common – which give the wines different flavors and often a nuttier, more oxidative character.

Most top-notch American sparkling wines are made with Champagne’s fermentation methods and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, and in many cases, the companies and even the same winemakers who make the best wines in Champagne create these American wines. But most grow in warmer climates and in richer soils than you find in Champagne, so they tend to be a bit heartier and seldom quite as finely textured as true Champagne.

If you have questions, please feel free to ask more about the wonderful world of sparking wines.



Pier Luigi Tolaini’s Excellent Estate – and his 93 point Super-Tuscan!

Pier Luigi TolainiPier Luigi Tolaini left his home in Luca at age 19 to find work,  promising himself he’d return to Tuscany someday to show his family how to make really good wine.

It took him a while – he spent the next 40+ years in Canada, ultimately building a prosperous trucking business. But in 1998 he purchased a 119-acre Chianti Classico property and set out to make “really good” wine.

He’s done pretty darn well, earning accolades from the wine press:

“Tolaini is on a tear, making some of the best wines representing the warmer Castelnuovo Berardenga subzone of Chianti Classico.” – Wine Advocate, 2014

“An estate to watch.” – Wine Spectator’s Bruce Sanderson after visiting in 2016

“Passionate attention to the Bordeaux-style vineyards, and a very natural approach to the cellar benefitting from international consultants, make Pierluigi Tolaini’s estate one of the most important in the Chianti Classico area.” – Gambero Rosso, Italy’s most important wine guide

If you’d like to learn more about the Tolaini story and estate, join us on Thursday, January 24, when winemaker Francesco Rosi leads our Spotlight on Tolaini class (you can reserve your seats online at this link – pretty cool Christmas present!).

Want to taste a preview? Stop by anytime this week for a taste of  Pier Luigi’s San Giovanni Valdisanti Toscana 2014, a great gift or Christmas dinner wine on sale from 28% off.

“The wine wraps thickly over the palate with dense textual richness and generous flavors of blackberry, spice and cured tobacco. There is a pretty note of sweetness on the close that resembles candied fruit or cherry liqueur. Drink 2017-2027″ Wine Advocate 91 points.

And Wine Spectator’s 93 point review agrees: “”Ripe, packed with black cherry, blackberry, violet, iron and spice aromas and flavors, this red is muscular and sophisticated. Beefy tannins shore this up, along with fresh acidity and a detailed aftertaste.” Wine Spectator 93 points

Helen Keplinger and the Perfect Cab

helen-keplinger2Helen Keplinger is sometimes pigeonholed as one of America’s best “woman” winemakers. Actually, she’s one of America’s best, period. Learning from mentors like Heidi Peterson Barrett, Kathy Joseph, Claude Gros, David Abreu, and Michel Rolland, she’s mastered the art of working with big ripe California fruit and shaping it into wines of depth, complexity and finesse.

She was one of “Four to Watch” in Wine Spectator in 2013. In 2014, they called her a “Rising Star” and put her on the cover of the magazine. If you’ve been fortunate enough to drink her Keplinger wines – mostly Rhone-inspired blends – you know just how talented she is.

This week, we’re pleased to be able to offer a limited quantity of her Carte Blanche wines, the 98 point Proprietary Red and the 100 point Napa Cab. With this pair of benchmark Napa Cabs, I think it’s safe to say Helen is no longer “rising” – she’s at the top.

Nicholas AllenThe background. These wines come as Helen joins her winemaking skills with Nicolas Allen, whose dream is to create a “First Growth” estate in Napa.

Having grown up in New Jersey in a family with deep Bordeaux roots, in 2007 Nicholas Allen decided to act on his dream. Working with Peter Michael (and now Morlet Family Wines) winemaker Luc Morlet, he chose prime slices of some of Napa’s greatest vineyards to work with and decided to make two reds: one inspired by Bordeaux’s Right Bank and the other a Left Bank homage.

The early vintages were impressive, if sometimes retaining a touch of rusticity to the big, bold fruit that held them back from reaching the absolute first class level of Napa wines. In 2014, Helen took the winemaking reigns (her husband, DJ Warner, had been managing the estate from the beginning). And in her second full vintage at the helm, the wines have stepped up to the very peak of Napa power and perfection.

Carte Blanche winesThe Carte Blanche Proprietary Red 2015 (Wine Advocate 94/ Jeb Dunnuck 98 points) is a nod to Bordeaux’s Right Bank, blending significant amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc into rich Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s delicious already in a youthful, fleshy, mouthfilling way with layers of black fruit, chocolate, spice box, graphite and mint. The tannins are supple enough for this to show well with a steak today, but give it some time (through 2035 or longer) and you’ll be rewarded with more Bordeaux-like finesse and non-fruit depth.

The Carte Blanch Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (Wine Advocate 97/ Jeb Dunnuck 100 points) is the Left Bank-inspired wine. With 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from Andy Beckstoffer’s famed Missouri Hopper vineyard in Oakville, it’s bold, intense, and very firm right now. Already you can pick up wonderful complexity to the Crème de Cassis, blackberry, licorice, crushed herb and spice aromas and flavors. Give this 5 years (and drink – 2048) for the tannins to soften, and it will be one of the most impressive Napa wines in your cellar.

We have secured limited quantities of both wines, and we encourage you to enjoy the best, six-bottle savings on a mix/match basis.

Try the Prop Red for Christmas this year if you like, but get enough bottles to enjoy both wines for many, many, holiday seasons to come!

‘Sparkling Wine, Anytime’ – and Bereche Champagne for Special Times

“Sparkling wine, anytime.” Dave McIntyre’s column in the Washington Post’s food section yesterday has us saying “absolutely!” And we certainly agree that the classy Bohigas Cava Brut Reserva is great “affordable pizzazz” from $14.98, perfect for the celebratory neighborhood get-together or to accompany you as you gather informally with family and friends.

Bereche et fils cote 3 bottlesStill, sparkling wine makes us think of Champagne, and the excellent values we’ve brought in for you from Bereche, cellar selections from two of the most talented, exciting and impressive talents working in Champagne today: Vincent and Raphael Bereche.

The brothers Bereche farm 9 hectares of vines in some of Champagne’s most fascinating terroirs, including around Ludes and Craon de Ludes, the gravelly terroir of Ormes in the Petite Montagne, and the area around Mareuil-le-Port, on the left bank of the Vallee de la Marne.

Raphael and Vincent Bereche

They farm organically, make wine meticulously, and create Champagnes of uncommon grace, verve, and deliciousness. As Antonio Galloni says in Vinous,

“These artisan, handcrafted Champagnes remain some of the most personal, unique wines being made in the region today. I rarely miss an opportunity to drink them, and, for what it’s worth, neither should you.”

The three wines featured here come from Bereche’s Crus Sélectionnés program. To increase the range of Champagne terroirs they represent – and deal with truly crushing global demand for their small production wines – Vincent and Raphael have begun visiting the best of the best tiny Champagne estates and sampling through their wines aging on the lees. When they find a winner, they buy it, bring it to their own cellar, and continue aging until it’s ready. Then they disgorge and finish the wine with an appropriate dosage.

Tasting through the Crus Sélectionnés from the Cotes de Blancs quickly proves that Bereche is as adept at picking great Champagne as they are at making it! All three of these wines were disgorged in January of 2016 and finished “Extra Brut” with only four grams per liter of sugar added to bring the wines into balance. The combination of 8-10 years on the lees and two years cellar time after disgorgement has brought all three bottlings into their perfect drinking windows (although, as you’ll see in the Wine Spectator reviews, all still have years to go).

Frankly, all three of this rich, layered 100% Chardonnay Champagnes are outstanding values at their $110 release prices. Just compare them to vintage 2005, 2006 and 2007 Champagnes earning higher scores in Wine Spectator – names like Cristal, Krug, Dom Perignon are what you’ll see.

At comfortably under $100 by the bottle and only $85/ea in the vertical three-packs, they are brilliant value whether buying for gifts, putting in the fridge for Christmas and New Year’s, or adding to the cellar to enjoy for years to come.

Girardin White Burgundy: Wines of Finesse and Style

Girardin SignWhile it still carries the founder’s name, by the mid-2000s, Vincent Girardin had largely turned over responsibility the Domaine to GM Marco Caschera and winemaker Eric Germain. Since Girardin retired in 2012, Caschera and Germain continue to push this once very good estate forward towards greatness.

Under Germain’s leadership, the Domaine has moved away from the fleshy, super-ripe, and heavily-oaked style of whites that first brought it fame in the 1990s. The focus now is first and foremost on farming. The Domaine itself owns and tends about 50 acres of vines across Burgundy and has access to additional vineyards owned by trusted growers.

Careful Farming
Girardin vineyardsVineyard work is as natural as possible, following organic and biodynamic principles as much as Burgundy’s fickle climate and weather allows. Yields are now modest due to careful pruning and thinning of the crop during the growing season. Grapes are harvested by hand and sorted twice – once in the vineyard by the pickers and then again in the winery by hand and – since 2016 – a modern optical sorting machine.

In contrast to the winery’s original style, Germain’s focus now is on getting his fruit to bottle with as little manipulation and handling as possible. For Chardonnay, that means no destemming before pressing – because knocking the berries off the stems opens the grape to the risk of oxidization before fermentation. Instead, whole clusters go directly to the press were the juice can be gently extracted and flow by gravity directly into tank for settling.

From tank, the thick, fresh, juice flows by gravity into French oak barrels for both alcoholic and malolactic fermentation. Oak is important to developing richness and depth to Chardonnay, but Germain does not like the flavor of wood, so most wines see 10-15% new oak (enough to replace aging barrels) and only the very top, most concentrated, wines get as much as 30%.

Waiting Until It’s Ready
Puligny-Montrachet and glassesOnce the wine is in barrel, Germain….waits. Other than keeping each barrel topped up to make up for evaporation, the wine simply sits on the fine lees of fermentation for 14-18 months of resting and maturation. When the wine is ready, the cellar team simply knocks the bottom bung out of the barrel and allows the clear wine to flow out, leaving the milky sediment behind. Bourgogne Blanc – because of the amount made – requires a little pumping, so it sees a light filtration before bottling. Everything else goes naturally from barrel to blending tank to bottle.

All that’s nice, of course, but what really matters is what you’ll find in the bottle when you get it home. And that’s deliciousness! Sure, these are super-sophisticated wines of terrior, complexity and minerality. But they are also flat out fun to drink right now and built to keep on improving more. Come, taste, and stock up while you can!