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.

Posted in Champagne, France, Sparkling Wine, Wine | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

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.

Posted in Local Wine, Maryland, Wine | Tagged , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in California, Local Wine, New York, Oregon, Wine | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Drink Local Wine Week: The Importance of Vintage. Or Not.

Virginia and Maryland vintners have become adept at turning challenges into advantages. Case in point: The region’s variable climate. We get hot vintages, humid vintages, even hurricane vintages that have us looking for arks rather than barrels. (Anyone remember 2011?) Harsh winters can take their toll, as can late spring frosts. Cicadas, ladybugs, stinkbugs — yep, we get those too.

Increasingly though I don’t hear winegrowers complaining about these challenges. Rather, they’re embracing them, content to make whatever wine the vintage gives them, a reflection of terroir and time. This embrace of the local climate is a sign of the increasing maturity of our local wine industry, as winegrowers learn to adapt to what a vintage gives them rather than wringing their hands over Nature’s caprices. 

And yet, if you have some barrels of 2010, a super-hot year where alcohol levels spiked as high as 15 percent, aging in your cellar next to 2011s that lacked extract because it rained for 36 out of 30 days in September, why not blend them? Do we care if a winery can’t put a vintage date on the label? Should we? Or should we embrace the experimentation that produces something new and delicious?

I explored this question in a recent column in The Washington Post. Here it is:

When Ed Boyce and Sarah O’Herron were blending their 2007 wines, the second vintage for their Black Ankle Vineyards in Mount Airy, Md., six barrels refused to play well with the others. The wines tasted awkward and didn’t add value to the various blends the couple were crafting. So they put the barrels back in storage and forgot about them.

After a few years in barrel detention, however, the wines had “come around,” as wine lovers like to say of late-blooming vino, like troubled teenagers who mature into successful adults. So Boyce and O’Herron blended them with some wine from 2008 and a bit from the super-ripe 2010 vintage. The result was Slate, an unusual melange of Bordeaux grapes — cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot — with syrah comprising a third of the blend. Labeled without a vintage date, the wine was so successful that it won the Maryland Governor’s Cup competition in 2011. It was Black Ankle’s third cup win: Its flagship Bordeaux blend, called Crumbling Rock, won in 2008 and 2009 for the 2006 and 2007 vintages, respectively. The 2010 Crumbling Rock took top honors in the 2013 competition.

BlackAnkleLogoToday, Black Ankle offers Slate 2, a blend primarily of wine from the rainy harvest of 2011 (a year when Boyce and O’Herron decided to “declassify” wines and not to make a Crumbling Rock blend) with some from the successful 2010 season blended in.

“If one vintage gives too much alcohol, and the following not enough concentration — as happened in 2010 and 2011 — why not blend them to correct both problems?” Boyce says. “Blending vintages helps our wines avoid being Jekyll and Hyde from year to year.”

The idea of “non-vintage” or “multi-vintage” wines is not new. Champagne producers typically blend wine from three or more harvests to create a house style that can be consistent from year to year in Champagne’s fickle northern climate. If you buy a bottle of Bollinger Brut or Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label, you know what you’re getting. Marietta Cellars in California is up to Lot 62 on its popular Old Vine Red, an old-style zinfandel-based blend. Spanish winemakers traditionally blended the best vintages to make a reserva especial, a technique still used by cult producer Vega-Sicilia.

On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Bordeleau Vineyards & Winery blends its reds across vintages to achieve consistent quality and has started labeling its wines with lot numbers to distinguish different blends. (However, the winery won this year’s Governor’s Cup competition with a vintage 2008 cabernet sauvignon made with raisined grapes in the style of amarone.)

“Blending multiple vintages gives a winemaker another set of tools to achieve the goal of making excellent wines year in and year out,” says Tom Shelton, Bordeleau’s owner-winemaker.

Federal regulations allow some intermarriage of vintages. When a wine is labeled with an appellation, or American Viticultural Area, 95 percent of it must be from the vintage on the label. However, if it is labeled just with the state of origin, the minimum is 85 percent from the vintage. A skosh here or a dollop there from an older year can add complexity or even a hint of age to a younger wine. Black Ankle’s Slate and Marietta’s Old Vine Red go beyond that minimum and challenge our preconception that fine wine must carry a vintage date.

Vintages might be irrelevant with supermarket wines that emphasize consistency over thrills. Many cheap box wines have abandoned vintages for freshness dates. With fewer people collecting wines to age, do we even pay attention to vintage differences? We might just decide that we don’t like a particular winery any more because this year’s wine wasn’t as enjoyable as the last.

Even so, vintage dating is so ingrained in wine culture that we are unlikely to see a widespread move to vintage blending. Wine fiends love comparing one year with the next, choosing vintages to drink now or to hold. And for winemakers, the year’s weather is part of terroir, that special character of place they try to coax from their vineyards.

In a recent online chat hosted by Frank Morgan, author of the Drink What You Like blog, winemakers from the Veritas, King Family and Grace Estate wineries in Virginia voiced their preference for vintage-dated wines.

“I’m trying to express the character of each vintage,” said Emily Pelton of Veritas — a sentiment echoed by Jake Busching of Grace Estate. Matthieu Finot of King Family expressed it best.

“The wines from 2011” — a rainy harvest — “reflect the vintage,” Finot said. “I don’t want a standardization of my wine to taste the same year after year. “Wine . . . is interesting because of the expression of the vintage.”

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Drink Local Wine Week: Texas Tempranillo

In her Financial Times column and on her website this week, Jancis Robinson describes how Tempranillo has in the last 25 years or so become the third-most planted grape in the world, in terms of acreage, after Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It even now beats out Airén, the white grape of Spanish brandy. And yet Tempranillo is essentially “a one-country grape,” Robinson says. Despite a strong incursion into Portugal, “about 90 percent of the world’s Tempranillo is grown in Spain.”

Tempranillo is one of the grapes Texas winemakers are increasingly enthusiastic about, as they continue to explore warm-climate grape varieties from the Mediterranean countries. When I visited Texas to attend TexSom in August, I had the opportunity to try a few Texas wines, and was particularly impressed with the Tempranillos from Pedernales Cellars and Brennan Vineyards.

These were rich, deep and savory wines, with blueberry and tobacco leaf flavors typical of the grape. My imagination tends to kick into high gear when I taste such delicious wines, but even in the climate-controlled atmosphere of the Four Seasons near Dallas, I could almost taste the gritty sunshine and sweat of my Hollywood-infused image of the Texas landscape, but without the overstated Texas swagger. These are delicious, elegant wines.

This is Drink Local Wine Week, the annual call to bloggers and writers across the country to feature local wines. It is sponsored by Drink Local Wine, the group Jeff “The Wine Curmudgeon” Siegel and I co-founded in 2008, before local wine became mainstream. You can find a running list of articles for Drink Local Wine Week on the organization’s website.

Posted in, Local Wine, Texas | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

This Year’s Vintage Didn’t Begin With Bud Break

Harvest has begun, not just in California but also here in the East. We think of a vine’s growing season as bud break to harvest, but the 2014 vintage throughout much of the United States has been shaped and even defined by what came before — the harshest winter in memory.

I had seen reports of the devastation in wine regions such as Michigan and northeastern Ohio, but I wanted to see for myself winter’s effects and learn how vintners were coping. So last month I went to Michigan’s Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas (and reported on winter’s effects here) and Ohio’s Grand River Valley, where as late as May many growers were thinking of quitting rather than replanting. But then the vines began to grow, from the ground. There will be no crop this year, and probably little if any in 2015. But the vineyards will survive.

The first Ohio vintner I met was Arnie Esterer, who began planting vinifera vines near the shores of Lake Erie in Conneaut (I learned it’s pronounced Connie-at, as in, “Where’s Connie at?”). This is outside of the Grand River Valley AVA, where several other growers told me it was impossible to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon. I just chuckled, because Arnie’s Markko Vineyard Cabernet was among the best I’ve ever tasted, from anywhere. He poured me his 2010 and a 1991, which tasted almost as fresh. And he is justly proud of his Chardonnay, which he calls Homage in honor of his mentor back in the 1960s, Dr. Konstantin Frank.

Arnie Esterer of Ohio's Markko Vineyards

Arnie Esterer of Ohio’s Markko Vineyards

Here’s the piece I wrote for The Washington Post about my visit to Ohio. I mentioned it on social media when it was published, so I apologize for any repeats. But this is an important story about the growth of wine in the Eastern United States, one that cannot be told adequately through weather reports.

Arnie Esterer considered giving up. He and his 45-year-old vineyard had survived the winters of ’94 and ’03, but now the vines were ravaged, reduced to blackened, bare stumps following the record low temperatures that struck the eastern United States in early 2014. There clearly would be no crop this year, and the vines themselves were lifeless.

Until late April. That’s when shoots began to emerge from the ground, giving hope that the vineyard could be revived. So Esterer, the first vintner to plant European vinifera grape varieties along the Lake Erie shore in northeastern Ohio, began training those shoots up the trellis wires in hopes of growing new trunks and cordons that might bear a crop in 2015. Having planted the vineyard near Conneaut in 1968 as a young man and built a cult reputation for his Markko Vineyard cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and Riesling, Esterer, 82, was starting over.

This year’s severe winter, with its “polar vortex” that brought record low temperatures to much of the eastern half of the country, was devastating to wine grape growers.“Once every 10 years” is a common refrain of vintners describing the likelihood of harsh winters and their effects on viticulture. It echoes a decades-long debate over whether eastern U.S. vineyards should be planted with European varieties or native American or French-American hybrids. The vinifera advocates have won that debate, but they pay the price in years like 2014. Native grapes, such as concord, and hybrids like chambourcin and vidal blanc survived this winter in fair shape.

Esterer was a disciple of Dr. Konstantin Frank, the Russian immigrant who championed the vinifera varieties for the Finger Lakes in New York and other areas along the east coast throughout the 1960s and into the early 1980s. Dr. Frank gave him advice and sold him his initial vines. Today, Esterer makes a stunning cabernet sauvignon in a region where other vintners are still quick to say, “You can’t ripen cabernet here.” His chardonnay, aged for three years before release, is savory and rich, as though the vines managed to transmit a message from deep within the Earth.

A soft-spoken man who is not shy about dropping a few profanities into his discourse, Esterer resembles Robert E. Lee, with his white hair and beard. His winery is essentially a backwoods cabin, where he offers guests a tasting at a rough-hewn wooden table that promotes conversation more than sales. To get inside, I had to pass inspection by two shaggy sheepdogs, one of whom goosed me to check my bona fides. Once there, Esterer produced a notebook full of spreadsheets with data about every one of his vines.

“I know exactly how many were killed,” he said. The toll: Out of 10,000 vines, more than 3,000 will never grow another grape. One third of his life’s work, destroyed.

A harsh winter can harm a vineyard in two ways – by killing the buds that form the previous year and carry this year’s crop, and more seriously, by freezing the sap and shattering the vine from within. The extent of damage from last winter is still uncertain. In northwest Michigan, growers on the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas along Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay (which actually froze in late February) are expecting to harvest a 2014 crop only 30 percent the size of a normal vintage. Yet these areas have apparently escaped major vine kill, thanks to heavy snow cover that protected the vine roots and the sensitive area where the American rootstock is grafted to the European grape vine.

Winter damage in Virginia was worse than initial assessments indicated, according to Virginia Tech viticulturist Tony Wolf. The true extent of damage may not be known for years. Johannes Reinhardt, owner/winemaker of Kemmeter Wines in New York’s Finger Lakes, remembers the harsh 1985 winter in Germany’s Franken region. “Three years later, when we had the next heavy crop, vines damaged that winter simply collapsed,” he said. Damaged vines may also be susceptible to crown gall, a disease that can eat away at a vine’s nervous system.

No region was hit harder than northeastern Ohio, along Lake Erie and the Grand River Valley northeast of Cleveland. After a mild December, temperatures plunged from 42 degrees to minus 19 over a period of 36 hours in early January, and stayed there for several hours. There was no snow cover to protect the vines. Subsequent cold spells magnified the damage.

“As late as mid-April, we feared an entire growing wine region had been destroyed,” says Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association. “Now there’s at least hope for the future.”

Restoring vineyards with the shoots emerging from the roots will not be easy, nor inexpensive. “I’m spending five times as much in labor costs to retrain these vines than if I had planted from scratch,” laments Art Pietrzyk, owner of St. Joseph winery in the Grand River Valley.

At Markko Vineyard, Esterer says he has enough inventory from two productive vintages in 2012 and 2013 to sustain him through a cropless 2014 while he restores his vineyard. “I’m retired, I have nothing else to do,” he says.

Yet he knows the damage could have been avoided, or at least lessened, if he had followed the advice of his old mentor, Konstantin Frank.

“We didn’t mound up enough,” he says, referring to the practice of piling dirt around the vine trunk to protect the sensitive graft union from winter’s wrath. “I didn’t follow Dr. Frank’s rules. After 40 years, I got lazy. I’m the only one to blame.”

Posted in Eastern US, Local Wine, Washington Post, Wine | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Barboursville Opens Its Cellar

Luca Paschina, the talented winemaker at Barboursville Vineyards north of Charlottesville, has long argued that Virginia needs an iconic wine that is consistently good across vintages and can age well. Such a wine is necessary for Virginia to earn a reputation as a truly world-class wine region, he says. Paschina has offered his Octagon, a Merlot-based Bordeaux blend, as such an icon. Other wineries are aiming as high with their top cuvées, but Octagon has a head start if only because Paschina has been making longer than most.

Barboursville Vineyards Winemaker Luca Paschina. (From Barboursville’s website.)

Barboursville is now ready to make a statement about the age-worthiness of its wines. In July, the winery opened Library 1821 (named for the year James Barbour took residency in the mansion designed for him by Thomas Jefferson) for weekend visitors to enjoy selected older wines from the winery’s cellar. And in August, Barboursville made older vintages of Octagon, Nebbiolo, Cabernet Franc and Malvaxia (a passito-style dessert wine) available for sale online.

I’ve been fortunate to enjoy some retrospective tastings at Barboursville over the years. Octagon, the Nebbiolo Reserve and Viognier Reserve age impressively well, remaining fresh while developing complexity and additional character over time. The Malvaxia develops an exotic richness as it mellows. Virginia wine fans are in for a treat.


Posted in Eastern US, Virginia, Wine | Tagged , , | 1 Comment