Champagne, Cava, Cremant … What’s the Story?

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 Meunier)
  • 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!

Solera 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.” 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. Each release after that includes wines from even more vintages.

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). This example from the Loire Valley is a blend of Chenin Blanc (60%), Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc (made white).

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.

We’re featuring a fun Italian sparkler this week: a white sparkling wine made from red Lambrusco grapes that serves up layers of white fruit (grape, Granny Smith apple, nectarine) with accents of toasty hazelnut and brioche.

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 – macabeo, parellada and xarel·lo are most common – which give the wines different flavors and often a nuttier, more oxidative character. A fun inexpensive one to try is Los Monteros Cava Brut NV, made from 100% Macabeo from vineyards near Valencia.

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. And come by this weekend for our “Fun with Fizz” Free Tastings!

Cheers!

 

 

Five Ways to Make Thanksgiving Wine Pairing Easy

thanksgiving-table.jpgNot sure what wine you want to put out on the table with the big bird and all the fixings? Here are some fool-proof strategies for picking great bottles to share with family and friends before, during, and after the big meal:

Lighten Up! – Well, that’s good general advice for a day that’s about being thankful for all the gifts of family, friends and the year. In wine terms, though, it means balancing the heaviness of traditional Thanksgiving feasts with lighter, refreshing wines. For whites try minerally Riesling (dry or lightly sweet), crisp Italian whites, or something more exotic like Txakoli. For reds, elegant Willamette Valley Pinot Noir will be a winner, as will good Beaujolais (not Nouveau), zingy Northern Italian reds or – a favorite of ours – Mencia from Spain’s Ribera Sacra.

thanksgiving-red.jpgPower Through – It’s a big meal, so match it with full and fleshy wines bursting with bold flavors. American Zinfandel and California Pinot Noirs are the classic suggestions here. But bold Rhone reds like Chateauneuf du Pape and Cotes du Rhone are just as much fun. You can find great value in Spain’s Tempranillo and Monestrell grapes or add a bit of luxury by going with powerful Priorat or even majestic Brunello di Montalcino.

champagne glassesBring on the Bubbles! – It’s 11 am, the oven is cranked, pots are simmering on the stove, maybe you’ve just come in from setting up the turkey fryer – just imagine how good an ice-cold glass of fizz will taste! Sparkling wine is welcome at every table all year ‘round. Maybe start with some friendly Prosecco or Cava pre-dinner, then step up to rich, toasty Champagne to enhance stuffing and sweet potatoes. And nothing will make the dinner table look more elegant (or those way too heavy mashed potatoes go down easier) than pretty pink rosé fizz in every glass.

Give Up – Look, here’s what every wine professional knows: No wine is a really good match for the cacophonous spread of sweet, savory, tangy and salty foods on the traditional Thanksgiving table. While it’s not obvious how oaky California Chardonnay, rich Napa Cab, or savory matured Bordeaux will pair with your Thanksgiving dinner, who cares? It’s a feast. Eat as much as you like and drink whatever the heck you want to – just be thankful you can!

Finish with Sweet Success – The turkey has been demolished, dishes are piled up waiting to be washed, and only crumbs remain in the pumpkin pie plate. As you settle down to digest and savor the day, one last sip of something sweet is the perfect treat. Port, sweet Chenin, tangy Madeira, subtle Sauternes – any and all will bring an unexpectedly luxurious and delightful close to Thanksgiving Day!

Want to see some specific suggestions? Just visit our CBC Thanksgiving Selections page, and you’ll find our staff favorites for enjoying on Thanksgiving Day and beyond. Or just stop by our give us a call. We’ll be thankful we had the chance to make your Thanksgiving Day just a bit tastier.

Is This Wine Organic? Wait … What’s Biodynamic?

Organic:Bio shelf talkerHere at Chain Bridge Cellars we work mainly with wine made by people who drink what they make and serve it to their family and friends. Overwhelmingly, they care about health and the environment and reflect that care in how they farm and make wine, whether or not they meet the various standards for organic and biodynamic farming or winemaking.

Still, because more and more of our customers want to know how the wine was grown and made, we recently decided to include the words “organic/bio” in green in our wine descriptions and on our “shelf talkers.” But what exactly does this mean?

A Focus on the Farming
Winemaking can be divided into two stages: the farming of the grapes in the vineyard and the fermenting, aging, and bottling of the wine in the winery. When we mark a wine with our “organic/bio” label, we’re referring to the farming: It means that the grapes were farmed either organically or biodynamically.

Organic farming is much like what you would expect: compliance with bans on herbicides and systemic pesticides and limits on what growers can use to nourish their vines and protect them from disease. For example, organic vine growing allows use of copper sulfate and sulfur, which are sprayed on the vines to prevent mildew and other fungi from growing.

demeter-logo-225px-hiWhat about Biodynamic?
Developed by Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s, biodynamics not only bans chemical or manufactured sprays, it also governs what growers do and when they do it.

For example, growers must follow a lunar calendar of root, fruit, leaf and flower days that determine when a grower can prune and harvest. In addition, all growers must spray two preparations on their vineyards: 1) a spray made from manure that has been buried in a cow horn for six months, and 2) a dilution of fractured quartz. Other preparations that vinegrowers can choose to use include herbal and homeopathic preparations.

And while some of this might sound a little crazy, it’s important to understand that biodynamics also relates to a bigger picture: how farming contributes to the overall health of the world. Standards apply to what grows on the edges of a vineyard, for example, and many biodynamic winegrowers grow cattle, chickens, and vegetables in addition to grapes. Biodynamics requires ecological diversity.

USDA Organic symbolThe Winemaking Piece
For a wine to have the USDA organic seal, both the wine growing and the winemaking must meet organic standards. And even though many organic wine growers make their wine with minimal intervention, one big issue keeps them from achieving USDA organic status: sulfites.

Sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation – anytime you ferment grapes, you’re left with wine that has sulfite in it.  If you ever find a “sulfite free” wine (which I bet you can’t!), the sulfites would have to be chemically removed … along with much of the wine flavor.

In the winery, almost all winemakers add sulfites to grapes and wines at multiple points in the winemaking process to protect the grape must from oxygen, kill off unwanted bacteria, and to ensure adequate levels of “free sulfur” in the finished wine at bottling to keep it fresh and tasty over time.

For reasons of both cost and philosophy, modern winemakers generally use as little sulfur in the winery as they can consistent with turning out a sound, healthy, fresh wine for you to enjoy.  But that means they almost always end up with greater than 10 ppm of residual sulfite – the level that triggers the “Contains Sulfite” label and prevents a wine from being awarded the FDA Organic label.

Even so, wines have far less sulfur in them than your typical package of dried fruit.  And, over the last few decades, winemakers have been steadily decreasing the amount of sulfur they add to their wines: no one likes wines that taste like sulfur! And, especially under screwcap, over-sulfured wines can taste rubbery and reduced. So each winemaker must decide: do I add just enough to be confident the wine is stabilized? Do I see how little I can get away with? Here at Chain Bridge Cellars, we favor wines made the first way.

Biodynamic practices also extend into the winery. That root, fruit, leaf and flower calendar also governs winemaking. In addition biodynamics forbids use of cultured yeast – all yeasts must be native to the winery or vineyard. And many biodynamic producers have begun to focus on how to keep winemaking from interfering how the wine reflects the vineyard’s terroir: Do the wines taste like the place the grapes were grown? This question leads winemakers consider how much they should manipulate the grapes, how much wood to use, if any … to consider  how “natural” their wines can be.

A Word about the Word “Natural”
But if you see the word “natural” on a wine, our advice is to run! Wine, much as we might like the pretend otherwise, is not a natural product. It’s a manipulated product, and winemakers “interfere” with the process for good reasons. Unsulfured wines tend to go bad, for example. Call us crazy, but we like our wine to taste good!

Where do we approve of “natural?” In the phrase “as natural as possible.” We like to work with winemakers who are careful, who work to have their grapes express the best that the varietal can be in their region, but who also are willing to intervene when things seem to go wrong. The line can be fuzzy – but we think you can taste the difference in the bottle. An overly manipulated wine tastes … manufactured. And an overly “natural” wine can taste, frankly, bad.

Then Does this Organic/Bio Label Make a Difference?
We think the answer is yes … and maybe. We know some excellent winemakers decide not to get officially certified in organic or biodynamic farming—sometimes because of the expense, or because they want to be able to use certain non-organic treatments when it’s necessary. Still, vine growers who go organic or biodynamic are willing to spend extra time and energy in the vineyard, monitoring and caring for the vines and their land—and that attention shows in the glass.

New Grape Time! Per’ ‘e Palummo

Per e Palummo glass and grapeThis ancient Roman grape has many names with similar meanings: Piedirosso (red feet), Palombina (little dove), and Per’ ‘e Palummo (dove’s foot).

All refer to the grape’s russet-colored stem and the three small clusters that hang at the bottom of each bunch. It’s naturally low-yielding and also low in color, acidity and tannin. In Campania (on the mainland), it’s mainly used to soften the tougher, darker Aglianico.

Thriving on the Island of Ischia
Ischia cenatiempo2Many all-Piedirosso wines I’ve tried are either thin and flabby, or show tough, bitter tannins, an unfortunate consequence of winemaking attempts to get some backbone in the wine.

However, the grape thrives on the island of Ischia, a volcanic island just off the coast from Naples and north of Capri. Grown in Ischia’s free-draining volcanic soils and ample Mediterranean sunshine, Per’ e’ Palummo, as they call it there, ripens to fleshy fullness without losing acidity or gaining excess alcohol.

Ischia cenatiempoThis week, we have a fine example of this grape ready for you to try in Cenateimpo’s Per’ e’ Palummo Ischia 2017, a delicious, captivating Italian red wine. Winemaker Pasquale Cenatiempo’s super-gentle winemaking captures the grape’s charm and cherry and brambly wild berry fruit with just enough structure to hold everything together.

Come by anytime this week to give this wine a try. At a minimum, you can check another grape-varietal off your grape-bucket list! And you could just have discovered a new favorite red to pair with anything from mussels to grilled mushrooms, salami and cheese pizza.

Cenatiempo Per' 'E Palummo

The Benchmark 2016 Vintage in Chateauneuf du Pape

Chateauneuf du PapeThis week’s Dom La Barroche Chateauneuf du Pape 2016s illustrate the 2016 vintage in Chateauneuf perfectly.

Across the Southern Rhone, and especially in Chateauneuf du Pape, 2016 is a great, great vintage. Now, to be honest, in the past 20 years, there have been only a couple of bad vintages (2002 and 1997) and not many “average” ones (perhaps 2008 and 2004?). But now that 2016 is in the bottle, Rhone lovers will be debating which of 1998, 2001, 2005, 2007, 2010, 2015 and 2016 are the “greatest” year of all!

How 2016 Has it All
I suspect 2016 will end up at the top of that exalted heap, possibly at the very top. Because it brings together the flamboyant richness and immediate appeal of a hot year like 1998 and 2007, the drought-driven intensity of years like 2005, and the purity, drive, and intensity of small crop years like 2001 and 2010. In short, 2016 has it all!

Four factors work together to make 2016 so special – and so unlike any other growing season in recent memory:

  • Generous, Even, Fruit Set – Fairly benign conditions during flowering let the vines set healthy – not excessive – loads of grapes (unlike 2010, say, when the small crop intensified the structure within each berry).
  • Very Hot, Sunny, Days – Rhone grapes need sunshine and heat to ripen, and 2016 delivered that in spades with multiple days exceeding 95°F, even in September.
  • Cool, Brisk, Nights – While days resembled hot years like 2007, low humidity and limited cloud cover meant that nighttime temperatures dropped quickly. As Dunnuck says, “This is what separates 2016 from other hot years like 2015, 2011, 2009, and 2003. This diurnal temperature swing is generally thought to preserve freshness in the grapes as well as contribute to more purity and freshness in the aromatics.”
  • Drought With Perfectly Timed Rain – After fruit set, the weather turned dry with extremely low rainfall until the arrival of light showers in mid-September. The drought kept berries small and intense and drove wonderfully dark colors. The refreshing late season rain gave the vines energy to finish ripening just in time for a traditional early October harvest.

What does all that mean in the bottle? Well, Josh Raynolds at Vinous says:

“If exuberant ripe fruit, harmonious tannins and an overall impression of generosity and lushness are what you’re after in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, then 2016 has plenty to offer. But the best wines also display real energy, making this a standout vintage. References to other great years such as 2010 and 2001 abounded during my visits with producers in mid-April, and while I concur with the comparison to 2001, the ‘16s show more flesh, more abundant fruitiness and rounder tannins than the 2010s did at a similar stage. At the same time, I believe that the wines will often be superior to those from recent hot years like 2009, 2007 and 2003 because of their greater freshness.”

And Jeb Dunnuck – formerly of Wine Advocate and now on his own, agrees:

“The 2016 vintage was truly extraordinary for the Southern Rhône and is a vintage that readers should buy with abandon. This is the greatest young vintage from the Southern Rhône Valley I’ve ever tasted, both in terms of quality as well as consistency. While these are ripe, concentrated, and exuberant wines, they also show an incredible purity of fruit as well as weightless, sensationally balanced profiles on the palate. They are complex, powerful wines that satisfy both the intellectual and the hedonistic parts of the brain. Rhône lovers will be comparing the 2016s, 2010s, and 2007s long into the future, and you will want these wines in your cellar.”

2016 at Dom La Barroche
Julien Barrot of Dom BarrocheThe work Julien Barrot has done at this Domaine comes to full fruition in 2016. And the results show in the critical acclaim (95 points for their Signature label and 100 points for their “Pure”).

The Barrot family owns 36 acres of some of Chateauneuf’s finest vineyard land, with 30 acres in production and six lying fallow in preparation for new planting. Julien will leave more than 5% of his land out of production for seven full years – shocking given the value of CdP vineyard! – because, “When you think about it, a parcel could have been used for vinegrowing for 100 straight years or longer. There is no way the soil can recover in just a few years after that.”

The producing land is mainly sandy-soiled sites in some of the region’s best areas, including an important slice abutting Rayas. The average vine age is 65 years, with multiple plots comfortably over the century mark and all farmed with organic care.

In the second year of his new gravity flow winery, Julien has taken major steps to increase the purity and finesse of his wines and moderate the extreme ripeness and power the region sometimes struggles to manage in an era of warmer growing seasons. For the first time ever, in 2016 he made no green harvest to increase the workload of the vines and moderate sugar levels. All of the Grenache remained on the stems for fermentation, adding a touch of spice and extra layer of freshness. And all of the fruit fermented in unlined “raw” concrete egg-shaped tanks to gain very gentle extraction and tamp down fruitiness a tiny bit.

The results are among the most exciting young Chateauneuf du Pape reds we’ve ever tasted, full of classic richness, ripeness and power but balanced by simply brilliant purity, finesse and length. The 2016 Signature shows astonishing freshness and vibrancy to go with the dark red fruit and full-bodied feel. And the 2016 Pure is…well, yes, Wine Advocate was “being too conservative at 99 points.”

Introducing Lower ABV Wine Selections

Lower ABV SelectionsMore and more often, we hear you ask, “What do you recommend for lower-alcohol reds?” Because while 14.8% Napa Cab and 15% Chateauneuf du Pape certainly has its place, sometimes something a little lighter, fresher, and easier to simply sip appeals.

Of course, you want lower alcohol – not lower levels of quality, satisfaction and deliciousness. Wines like today’s featured Cavalchina Bardolino 2016!

So when we’re tasting and evaluating wines for the store, our first question is, “Does this taste great?” Followed by, “Will our customers love it too?” More and more often, that brings us a range of wines that are full of flavor and delight but a touch lower in heft and alcohol.

So the next time you come into the store, take a look at our shelf tags. Where you see the blue “Lower ABV” emblem, you’ll know the wine is 13.3% or lower alcohol by volume (“ABV”).

Or you can click this link to see our Lower ABV wines online!

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.