Relieve Some Pressure: Pop a Cork!

In the spirit of the season, here’s a reminder that sparkling wine should be on the menu year ’round. From my Washington Post column, June 18, 2014, in which I coin (I think) the word “fizzologists” to describe those whose profession is to analyze the bubbles in Champagne, rather than to enjoy them.

A Champagne bottle holds about six atmospheres of pressure, requiring heavy glass, a special cork and a wire capsule to restrain the wine. In 2008, Decanter magazine reported that a German scientist with nothing better to do shook a Champagne bottle really hard before opening it, and measured the cork’s speed at about 25 miles per hour. (It’s a wonder there aren’t more one-eyed athletes on championship teams.) The scientist also estimated that if you left the bottle out in the sun without shaking it, the cork could theoretically reach a speed of 62 miles per hour once you nudged it loose.

This year, French scientist Gérard Liger-Belair, who leads a team of fizzologists at the University of Reims, published a paper in which he concluded that a glass of Champagne would release about 1 million bubbles. Assuming you don’t drink it, that is. His figure was much less than the estimate of 15 million bubbles popularly bandied about by various wine writers. (Most wine writers are not scientists, and it is very easy to lose count.)

The point is, opening a bottle of Champagne relieves pressure — both on the bottle and on the drinker. Those bubbles that mark life’s celebrations are really mood-altering drugs. That’s why sparkling wine — and here I include any bubbly, not just Champagne — makes an ideal aperitif for any occasion. No sourpuss can resist its charms. Food tastes better when we’re happy, and bubbles make us happy.

Yet Americans still consider sparkling wine to be for special occasions, when we’re probably already happy. The vast majority of us purchase one or a few bottles a year, typically in December. Even Veuve Clicquot, the most popular Champagne in U.S. markets, is subject to this seasonal bias.

Veuve Clicquot chief winemaker Cyril Brun with some of his stellar cuvées

Veuve Clicquot chief winemaker Cyril Brun with some of his stellar cuvées

“We notice a little peak in sales around Valentine’s Day, then again around Mother’s Day, but most sales are concentrated around the New Year,” Cyril Brun, Clicquot’s chief winemaker, said during a recent visit to Washington. He was optimistic though that consumers are beginning to enjoy the wine for itself instead of for the occasion.

“When people are more into the product than the context, that’s a big step forward,” he said.

Continue reading

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##WW More Holiday Bubbly and Some Celebratory Reds

In the spirit of “Wine Wednesday,” here are recommendations for some fine bubbly and two delicious red wines to help celebrate the holidays. These were published December 10 in The Washington Post, with lists of stores in the DMV that carry them, but without this little intro. It seems “drinking stars” was unintelligible to non-wine fiends, especially given the recent unfortunate news coverage of fraternity parties on a certain local university campus. I trust readers here will catch the reference to Champagne lore, however apocryphal it may be.

’Tis the season for drinking stars, so here are some more sparkling wines for your holiday celebrations, plus two delicious reds.

Piper Heidsieck Brut
2-1/2 Stars
Champagne, France, $50

A classic Champagne, with tree fruit flavors and crisp minerality and a satisfying, palate-invigorating finish. Alcohol by volume: 12 percent.

Stolpman Vineyards Estate Grown Syrah 2011/2012
2-1/2 Stars
Santa Ynez Valley, Calif. $32

This excellent syrah from Santa Barbara County is a bit gangly at first, but it opens nicely to reveal blueberry and cherry fruit with an earthy edge. I tasted the 2011 most recently, while the distributor has recently begun selling the 2012 — no worries, as this winery is consistently good. ABV: 14.1 percent.

Mont Marcal Cava Brut 2011
Penedes, Spain, $15

Cava is a great bargain bubbly, made in the Champagne style. Inexpensive ones (and I mean $10 and under) tend to be good, while top end producers such as Mont Marcal make wines with depth and complexity. If you close your eyes and think real hard, they’re even Champagne-like. I recommend any Cava by this producer. The importer is Seattle-based Classical Wines, which has been importing terrific Spanish wines for 30 years. ABV: 12 percent.

Purple Hands Pinot Noir 2013
2 Stars
Willamette Valley, Ore. $24

Can we ever have too much Oregon pinot noir? Not in my book. While most Oregon wineries are currently selling the fantastic 2012 vintage, Purple Hands alerts us that 2013 will offer lots of pleasure too. This is simple, youthful and straightforward, but also rich and delicious. ABV: 12.5 percent.

La Jara Sprizz’ter
Veneto, Italy, $8

La Jara produces some excellent organic Prosecco. The Sprizz’ter is the winery’s stab at a wine cocktail, a mix of sparkling wine, water and fruit flavoring. There’s raspberry scented Rosso and a citrusy Bianco that tastes like Sprite on steroids. These are juicy, slightly sweet and fun, ideal for cocktails, punch or sangria, or just for sipping over ice with a twist of orange. My mother-in-law loved them. Maybe Bartles & Jaymes were on to something after all. ABV: 5 percent.

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#TBT: Not All Festive Fizz Comes from You-Know-Where

In the spirit of Throwback Thursday, I offer this item published December 10, 2008, in The Washington Post – my first attempt at the obligatory holiday sparkling wine column.

I nearly clocked my mother-in-law with a champagne cork. It exploded from the bottle as I loosened the wire cage holding it in place, whizzed past her right ear, thwacked the ceiling and came to rest on the floor under the kitchen table, where our cocker spaniel assessed its edibility. The entire family began laughing before my MIL had time to wonder whether it had been a bad cork or bad aim.

That scene might be played out across the land this month as we flit from holiday party to office reception to family celebration, culminating in the traditional New Year’s toast. Chances are we will sip more fizz in December than we have all year. If someone else is pouring, all well and good. But when it’s our turn to buy the wine, it pays to know our options so we can fit our budget and our bubbles to the occasion.

“Champagne is so expensive!” I hear that complaint all the time, and not without reason. Decent stuff starts at about $35 a bottle and skyrockets into the stratosphere, and unfortunately, higher price does not guarantee higher quality. But other wines, including Italian prosecco, Spanish cava and American sparklers, can provide the bubbly celebration we need this time of year and still leave some change in our pockets.

“Champagne,” of course, refers to sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France, about an hour’s drive northeast of Paris. It is the most sought-after and expensive of sparkling wines, and for many bacchanalians nothing less will suffice. To call other sparkling wines “champagne” is unfair, not only to champagne producers, which try to protect the brand, but also to the wide range of bubblies from around the world that have their own character and identity.

I’ll discuss how to find good value in champagne in next week’s column. For now, here’s a primer on the other main types of sparkling wine. Continue reading

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#WW Five Champagnes for the Holidays, and Beyond

Champagne is expensive — usually from $30 a bottle on up. The best values tend to kick in around the $40-$50 range. That’s another reason to treat them like fine wine and savor them out of a decent glass. Here are a few to brighten your holiday season.

Heidsieck & Co. Monopole Gold Top Brut 2005
Champagne, France, $50

A “great value” for $50? Absolutely, when you’re talking vintage Champagne at this quality. The wine is generous and friendly, as welcoming as a roaring fire in winter. Alcohol by volume: 12 percent.

Gonet-Medeville Blanc de Noirs Premier Cru Brut
Champagne, France, $52

Another delicious Champagne, racy with red currant and mineral flavors. Blanc de Noirs means a white wine from black (red) grapes. This wine is 100 percent pinot noir from chalky soils, and is precisely focused and energetic. It wants you to sit up and take notice. ABV: 12.5 percent.

Lancelot ChampagneLancelot-Goussard, Claude Lancelot Blanc de Blancs Brut
Champagne, France, $42

Blanc de Blancs means “white from whites” and indicates a Champagne made entirely from chardonnay. This one is expansive in mouthfeel and rich with tree fruit flavors and some nice toasty character. ABV: 12 percent.

Charles Orban Carte Noire Brut
2-1/2 Stars GREAT VALUE
Champagne, France, $42

This wine blends the three Champagne grapes — pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay — in equal proportions, so it was an appropriate wine for my glass tasting experiment. This is classic Champagne, minerally and fruity with great focus. ABV: 12 percent.

Pommery Brut Royal
2-1/2 Stars GREAT VALUE
Champagne, France, $42

Pommery is one of the classic Champagne houses. Its wines display an elegance and delicacy that appeal to me. If there’s such a thing as liquid gossamer, it probably resides in the chalk cellars of Pommery. ABV: 12 percent.

These recommendations were published in The Washington Post on December 3, 2014. For store availability information in the DMV markets, click here

3 Stars = Exceptional; 2 Stars = Excellent; 1 Star = Very Good. These ratings are intended to show my enthusiasm for the wines. Any wine recommended is worth buying, in my opinion.

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Champagne: What Glass to Choose?

Our choice of glassware should fit the wine, and the occasion. With Champagne or other sparkling wine, the traditional flute or coupe glasses are fine for toasting (although the coupe can slosh and spill easily), making them good choices for New Year’s parties or wedding receptions. The flute shape especially emphasizes the bubbles; both are small and help stretch a bottle (and your budget) over a crowd.

But if you’re drinking your Champagne with a meal — and there’s no reason not to — the flute or coupe may not be ideal. Neither allows us to “appreciate” the bubbly the way we might any other fine wine, by sticking our schnoz into the glass and inhaling deeply to savor the fruit and mineral notes. That’s why glass makers have developed wider flutes, including this French glass I wrote about previously on the blog.  Incidentally, that item from 2012 shows up repeatedly as the most popular post on this blog according to search engine results. So I’m chagrined to say that maybe “perfect” was overstating it. 

And to be honest, my wife and I had resorted to using our regular white wine glasses for sparkling wine. And now I’m questioning that, too. Here’s my recent Washington Post column about a new glass for Champagne from Riedel, and my very enjoyable research into how various glasses performed with a single bottle of Champers.

The vast majority of Champagne and other sparkling wines sold in the United States this year will be purchased in December. Most of it will lubricate our holiday parties or pre-dinner conversations, and of course our New Year’s toasts. We will drink it out of tall, narrow flutes or wide, shallow coupes, two styles of wine glasses that have become synonymous with Champagne.

Maximilian Riedel wants us to leave those flutes and coupes in the cupboard. Riedel is the guru of glassware, the 11th generation to helm his family firm of the same name and the third to specialize in stemware for wine. The Riedel company produces several lines of stems designed to match specific grape varieties: one shape for cabernet sauvignon, another for Riesling and a third for chardonnay, for example. The idea is that the right glass can enhance our experience of wine’s aromas and flavors.

The Riedel Veritas Champagne glass

This year, Riedel released a new stem specifically for Champagne. The Riedel Veritas Champagne glass resembles a tulip-shaped white wine stem. And that’s the point: Champagne is a fine wine meant to be consumed with food, not just sipped at celebrations. And its flavor and aromas are at least as important as the bubbles.

“Wine has a beautiful perfume, which you cannot taste, only smell,” Riedel explained during a recent telephone interview. “Flutes don’t allow us to dunk our noses into the glass and experience the perfume.”

Several Champagne producers I’ve spoken to also flunk the flute. “I don’t use classic Champagne flutes anymore,” Benoit Gouez, chef de cave for Moët et Chandon, said in an interview last year, explaining his preference for a white wine glass. “The larger glass helps the wine open up. The more it breathes, the more fruity and expansive it becomes.”

The Riedel Veritas is not the company’s first foray into Champagne-specific glassware. Riedel has produced glasses for several Champagne houses, such as Krug, Moët et Chandon and Veuve Clicquot. Because each house creates its own specific blend from the three Champagne grapes of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay, each glass was “completely different,” Riedel says, though the differences may seem subtle if we examine the glasses side-by-side. The new glass is meant to be an all-purpose stem for basic cuvées, vintage Champagnes, and all-chardonnay blanc-de-blancs, Riedel explained. He prefers to drink pinot noir-based Champagnes and rosés from his New World Pinot Noir glass, with a much larger bowl and a flared rim.

But do we really need another wine glass? The Riedel Veritas Champagne glass is not cheap at $70 for a set of two. So I set out to do some fun research. First, I sampled a Champagne from the new Riedel glass and from my everyday white wine glass, a Schott Zwiesel Forte, about $10 per stem. The glasses have similar shapes, but the wine tasted much fruitier from the Riedel, and after a few minutes in the Forte glass, the wine’s bubbles dissipated. (The new glass has the traditional laser-etched scratch point at the bottom of the bowl to anchor the bead of bubbles.)

Then I duplicated the experiment with seven glasses, including a traditional straight flute and two other Champagne glasses with slightly wider bowls. Once again, the new Riedel glass had a clear edge: The wine’s fruit aromas leapt from the glass, and the wine tasted very lively. In my everyday Forte glass (the one I’ve been using for sparkling wine, thinking myself oh so courant) the wine was a dud. So too in the flute, which offered no aroma and little flavor beyond the fizz. (The flute was a Riedel Vinum, by the way, at $32 a stem.)

The clear second-place finisher was the Spiegelau Hybrid flute, which like me sports a bulge in the middle, enough room to let the wine shine. At $12 a stem, it was a clear value, too. (Spiegelau is owned by Riedel.)

According to Champagne lore, Dom Perignon designed the flute so Champagne would have a glass to distinguish it from other wines. Now Champagne is trying to rejoin the fold and gain recognition as a fine wine.

And what about the coupe, widely derided because it allows the wine’s aromas and bubbles to dissipate? Riedel discounts the legend that the coupe was modeled after Marie Antoinette’s left breast, noting that the glass only gained favor in the 1930s. That didn’t stop model Kate Moss from commissioning a glass modeled after her own left breast. She unveiled it at a bubbly soaked London soiree in October.

“We were asked to design it,” Riedel said wistfully. “I was ready to fly there and measure it, but we decided not to do it.”

Postscript: Maximilian Riedel was especially proud of the stem on the new Champagne glass. He explained that his company had been working for years with great effort and expense to develop a molded stem that has the same feel as a hand-blown stem. That means without the noticeable seams that stretch from the foot of the glass to the bowl. These seams aren’t always visible, but you can feel them as you twirl the glass between thumb and forefinger. With the new Riedel Veritas Champagne glass, the twirling is smooth and effortless, with no perceptible irregularity in the stem. This is a minor point that most wine drinkers might miss, but Riedel’s pride in pointing it out to me shows his dedication to his craft.

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Catch-Up News: Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard Changes Hands

I’ve been so busy the past several weeks that I’ve neglected this blog. So here’s catching up on a few things, especially some news that I let slip:

Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyards has been sold. Sugarloaf was established a decade ago on a 92-acre former dairy farm and quickly became part of Maryland’s wine revival. I was especially impressed with their Bordeaux blends from the troublesome 2011 vintage, as was W. Blake Gray when he tasted them earlier this year for a feature on Palate Press.

Sugarloaf was a partnership of four families, the sons and sons-in-law of Dan and Polly O’Donoghue (who purchased the property in 1962). Jim McKenna, one of the managing partners, told me that age was taking its toll — three of the partners are in their 70s, the youngest is 64.

“Nobody in the family was coming up to take over,” McKenna said. “It’s hard work. People have romantic thoughts about the wine business, but it is a lot of hard work.”

Some of it comes easy to some people, though: The purchaser was a Chinese businessman, Chengwen Yang, who bought the property for his daughter Emily, who is wrapping up her viticulture education in Australia. The family searched in Australia, New Zealand, and California, but fell in love with Sugarloaf as soon as they saw the place.

McKenna did not disclose the purchase price, though the winery had been listed for $6 million. The sale was finalized October 31, and first reported by Paul Vigna on Penn Live.

Emily Yang, 24, is “a delightful young woman who truly wants to make superior wine,” McKenna says. She will begin full-time work at the winery this month. McKenna and Mike McGarry, another former partner, will remain as consultants for three years. Yang intends to keep the winemaking and viticulture team for the time being as well, including vineyard consultant Lucie Morton, he said.

The Yangs were not available for comment. But McKenna noted that as part of her education, Emily Yang will be required to perform a three-month internship at a winery, for which she will be graded. Not too many aspiring young winemakers get to intern at their own winery.

“I think she’ll pass,” McKenna quipped.

On a scheduling note, I’ll be part of the “faculty” for the 2015 Professional Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood in Napa Valley, next February 17-20. I’ll be there along with a very impressive lineup of speakers, including Jancis Robinson and former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, who will be the keynote speakers. I hope I live up to the billing of being part of a “stellar cast” of wine writers to speak.

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Fifty Years of American Winemaking, All in One Hour on October 29

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History is 50 years old this year. As part of the birthday celebrations, the museum’s food and wine history project will host a discussion of “Fifty Years of American Winemaking” on Wednesday, October 29, from 2-3 p.m.

I will moderate the discussion along with Paula Johnson, who heads the team that brought us the marvelous exhibit, “FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000.” If you haven’t seen that exhibit, you should – it includes Julia Child’s kitchen as well as a fascinating section on the growth of the U.S. wine industry.

Our discussion on the 29th will include representatives of pioneering wine families from the 1960s who helped shape American wine as we know it today: Robert M. Cook of Chalone Vineyard in California, Fred Frank of Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars in the Finger Lakes; Jason Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon, Kathleen Heitz Myers of Heitz Cellars in Napa, and Jeffrey Patterson of California’s Mount Eden Vineyards.

The discussion will be held in the American History Museum’s Warner Bros. Theater. There’s no wine tasting, unfortunately, but admission is free. They do request you register, however, to be assured of seating. Here are the details.

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