Sparkling Wines for New Years Eve. It’s not all about Champagne.

In a couple of days a lot of sparkling wine is going to be opened, sprayed around the room (maybe) and then drunk in celebration of the new year. That’s a good thing. But what sparkler will you be drinking? And how much do you plan on spending? Sparklers will set you back anywhere from $6.99 (stay away from these please) to $699. How do you choose? I’ve done some of the leg work for you. Here are several good options at different price points.

Champagne

All Champagne is sparkling wine but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. In order for a wine to be called Champagne it has to come from the Champagne region in northern France and it has to be made in a very specific way. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Munier grapes are used to make a base wine. This base wine is then placed in a bottle with some sugar and yeast and then capped. The yeasts eat the sugar giving off some more alcohol and carbon dioxide which is dissolved into the wine since it cannot get out of the bottle. After all the sugar is consumed the yeasts die. The wine is then aged on the dead yeasts, or lees as they are now called, which imparts the distinctive yeasty, bread, biscuit and toasty aromas you get with Champagne. The yeasts then must be removed from the bottle by riddling the bottles. This is a long and labor intensive process. Once complete the bottle is topped off with some reserve wine and sugar (not always) and then corked.

There are other sparkling wines that go through this same process but they cannot be called Champagne. Often they will use the words, Methode Traditionelle or Traditional Method Sparkling Wine but they will not be the same as Champagne. Champagne is unique due to the grapes used, the place they are grown and the process. It is a wonderfully unique, delicious wine that cannot be replicated anywhere else. Some places come close but they cannot match the complexity and energy that Champagne delivers. And for that you pay a premium. Champagne is not cheap. The method, reputation and demand all contribute to the high price we pay for this extraordinary wine.

You can expect to pay upwards of $40 for a bottle of Champagne. There are some out there for slightly less money but I think if you start at $40 it’s a safe bet that you’ll get a good bottle. Some names to look for are: Duval Leroy, Bollinger, A. Margaine, Aubry, Krug (super expensive!), Le Mesnil (one of the great bargains in wine), Tattinger, Billecart-Salmon, Egly-Ouriet, J Lasalle.

Cremant

If a sparkling wine is made in France using the same method as in Champagne but is made outside of the region of Champagne, then the wine is called Cremant. These are good alternatives to Champagne at much friendlier prices, usually from $15 upward. They lack the concentration and depth of Champagne but are more fruit forward. Look for wines labeled Cremant de Limoux, Cremant de Loire, Cremant de Alsace, Cremant de Bourgogne and Cremant de Jura.

An assortment of sparkling wines from around the globe – Italy, Argentina, France and Spain.

Cava

Another wine made in the same way as Champagne but from Spain and one of the great values in sparkling wine. You can get a good Cava for under $10! One of my favorites is the Segura Viudas Cava Brut Rose that can be found on sale for $8.99. Once again, these wines are more fruit driven and less complex than Champagne.

New World Traditionally Made Sparkling Wines

Almost everywhere wine is made there is a producer making sparkling wine using the traditional method like in Champagne. Some of these are very good and outstanding and some terrible. I would stick with producers from well-known wine regions that have a reputation of making good wines. These wines will fall on a broad spectrum from sweet to dry and from fruity to yeasty and complex.

In California some safe bets are Roederer, Mumm, Iron Horse, Domaine Carneros, Domaine Chandon. Plan on spending upwards of $25 for a good bottle. I really like a wine from Argentina that we tried recently. It’s pictured above from Domaine Bousquet. The wine is a very pale salmon color made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. There is just the slightest bit of sweetness but it has great body and a creamy mousse (bubbles). It’s made in the traditional way and is only $14. Buy it by the case if you can find it.

Tank Method Sparkling Wines

There are several ways to make a wine sparkle. The method used to make Champagne discussed above is considered the best way. The worst way is to inject wine with carbon dioxide. And then there is the Tank, or Charmat Method. This involves making a base wine, putting it into a sealed tank with sugar and yeast and letting the second fermentation take place in the tank. The wine is then filtered to remove the dead yeasts and bottled all under pressure. This is much less time-consuming and labor intensive. It is also good at showcasing fruit. These wines are made all over the globe but there are two countries that excel at them.

Italy

Prosecco is the first sparkler that comes to mind when Italy is mentioned, and for good reason. It is one of the best-selling sparkling wines on the planet. It comes from the Veneto region of northeastern Italy from the Glera grape. It’s fruity, slightly sweet (off-dry), easy and inexpensive. Everyone likes Prosecco. Chances are you’ll pay about $10-15 for a good one and most producers are a safe bet. Some of my favorites are Zonin, Foss Marai, LaMarca, Carpene Malvoti.

But Italy is not all about Prosecco. Asti, from Piemonte in the northwestern region of Italy, is another famous Italian sparkler made in the tank. This is always off-dry to sweet and offers incredible value as well. Moscato d’Asti is a slightly sparkling (frizzante), sweet wine that pairs well with desserts. And let’s not forget Lambrusco. These dry to off-dry red sparklers are perfect for antipasti, charcuterie and cheeses. There are also traditionally made sparklers from Italy that rival Champagne. These are Franciacorta and Trento DOC

Germany

Last but not least is Germany. The Germans consume a lot of sparkling wine. Much of it is imported. But it is not always sparkling when it gets there. The Germans import excess wine and add the sparkle when it gets there using the Tank Method. These are called Sekt and are great values. They can be anywhere from dry to sweet. Expect to pay $10-15 for a good Sekt. Henkell is a good producer that should be easy to get.

So, there you have it. A primer on sparkling wines for the New Year. I’ll post another article that goes a bit more in-depth into the production methods in the future. In the meantime if you have any questions or comments I’d  love to hear from you. What will you be toasting with this weekend?

 

Risotto Milanese: Saffron Risotto

People loved the risotto at our restaurant L’Amante. No matter how we served it, it was always a big hit. It was always on the menu. In fact, at one point we had 2 on the menu. And it’s not an easy dish to pull off in a restaurant. Risotto takes a lot of work as you really need to pay attention to it. Fortunately I learned from a couple of masters. Daniele Baliani  was the chef at Pignoli in Boston, the first restaurant I worked in out of culinary school a long time ago. And Francesco Berardinelli, his friend and chef/owner at Osteria di Rendola in Tuscany, are two of my mentors and they showed me the way with risotto. They also taught me the trick to serving perfect risotto in a restaurant which I will keep to myself for now.

As I said, Risotto is not an easy dish as it needs attention. I think this is why so many people don’t cook it at home. If it’s just a little under or overcooked it’s pedestrian. Getting it right takes practice and patience.  When it’s cooked properly it is ethereal. Hopefully this recipe will help. Don’t get too married to the quantities of liquid. The dish is about feel. You have to taste as you’re making it. The finished rice should be creamy and al dente.

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 small, Spanish onion, finely chopped

1 teaspoon saffron threads

4 cups water*, simmering

2 cups canaroli* rice (can substitute arborio)

1/2 cup dry, white wine

3/4 stick of unsalted butter

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

*A quick word about the liquid and rice. I like to use water even though most recipes call for some sort of stock. My reasoning is that as you cook the rice the liquid will get concentrated. That’s fine if you are using a good stock. But by using water it lets the ingredients shine as opposed to the stock. For rice I like carnaroli. It’s harder to find than arborio but I think it stands up better and is much more forgiving. It takes just a bit longer to cook as well.

In a heavy 14-inch skillet or sauce pan heat the oil and 1 teaspoon of butter over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the rice and stir to coat. Add the saffron and season with salt. Stir to coat. Turn the heat to med-high and add the wine. Stir until almost all the wine is absorbed. Add a 6-ounce ladle of water and stir until absorbed.

Keep adding the water, a ladle at a time, waiting until it is absorbed each time and continue stirring. After about 15-20 minutes the rice should start to look creamy (this is the starch being released by the constant stirring). Taste the rice to see if it is slightly al dente and creamy at the same time. If it is, remove from heat and add the remaining butter and the cheese. Stir to incorporate. Portion the rice on plates and serve warm.

Serves 4 portions.

 

3 GOOD AND COMPLETELY DIFFERENT WINES

Had these three over the course of a couple of days and was very pleased. The great thing is that they could not have been more different from each other. Variety is the spice of life!

2011 Flametree Cabernet Merlot, Margaret River, AU

Flametree bust onto the Aussie wine scene in 2008 for its’ first-ever wine, the 2007 Cabernet Merlot. The wine received award after award. And the rest is history. A short history, but a good one nonetheless. The winery was started in 2007 when the Towner family purchased some land in Margaret River in Western Australia with the intent of making exceptional, hand-crafted wines. They have come a long way in such a short time regularly being recognized as one of the best, small wineries in the country.

The 2011 Cabernet Merlot is actually a blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with a good smattering of Merlot and some Petite Verdot and Malbec thrown in for good measure. This is almost opaque purplish that stains the glass. Very aromatic with blackcurrant fruit, cassis, blackberry and some smoke. The oak is there but very well-integrated. The palate is ripe and lush with soft tannins. Plenty of fruit here but not jammy or over the top. Nice long finish. Very good at $35.

2012 Pasquale Pelissero Barbaresco ‘Cascina Crosa’, Piemonte, Italy

Ornella Pelissero and her husband Lorenzo now own the Cascina Crosa farm outside of the the town of Neive. She worked the land with her father, Pasquale, until he passed away in 2007. Even though the farm has been in the family since 1921, the first bottling came in 1971 when Pasquale transitioned from a grower based on quantity to a producer based on quality.

The grapes for this Barbaresco, one of 3 made, come from the cru San Giuliano in the commune of Neive. This is still a bit tight but it does show the tell-tale Nebbiolo markers of rose petal, violet and cherry along with a turned earth note. The tannins are still young and high making this very grippy. Give it some time in a decanter or the glass and it rounds out nicely. This needs food to tame the tannins. Steak would be the obvious choice but lamb, duck or quail would also work. About $34.

2012 Domaine Hauvette Les Baux de Provence ‘Amethyste’, Provence, France

Domaine Hauvette sits at the foothills of the Les Alpilles near to the Roman ruins where Van Gogh painted his famous ‘Starry Night’. The land is wild and rocky with limestone soils, perfect for the vine. Garrigue (the aromatic vegetation found in southern France) is everywhere, even showing up in the finished wines with its’ notes of pine resin, rosemary and lavender. Dominique Hauvette came here in the 1980’s from Savoie to raise horses and make wine. She now has a reputation as one of the best natural wine producers of the region.

She started to focus on biodynamics in 2000. When you are making wines as naturally as she does, a focus on the health of the land is absolutely necessary. Healthy, perfect grapes are mandatory to produce wines of this caliber. In the cellar she is decidedly hands-off and low-tech with outstanding results.

This wine surprised me a bit. The color was a pale ruby. Or was it garnet? Either way, one would not expect such a pale wine from this very hot corner of Provence. The blend is made up of mostly Cinsault with Carignan and Grenache rounding out the grapes. Very perfumed but delicate aromas of raspberry and strawberry with thyme and pine. No oak here. This wine is not a lightweight but certainly not full-bodied. The palate is soft and inviting. It reminds me a bit like a Valpolicella or Barbera in that the tannins are barely there and the acidity is high. Red fruits abound on this juicy wine. This is so refreshing that you cannot help but want to take another sip. Delicious. $35.

2010 Domaine Nau Bourgueil ‘Les Blottieres’, Loire Valley, France

Abel Nau and his family craft some extraordinary wines that offer stunning value from the Bourgueil AOC in the Loire Valley. The Domaine sits in the charming village of Ingrandes-de-Touraine next to the river. It is windy here but the property is protected by the plateau north of the river. The 30 acres of vines they tend on the hillside gives them all the resources needed to make reds and a rose from Cabernet Franc. There is nothing fancy here just good old hard work and dedication to their craft. These are solid wines that are a great introduction to the appellation. It’s tempting to drink them young but if you wait a few years your patience will be rewarded.

Normally this would have been drunk by now. I was rearranging my cellar and saw this on the bottom shelf and immediately knew that I had just found a little treasure. This is made exclusively form the free-run juice of 30-year old vines. Everything is done by hand including the punch-downs in cement tanks. Time has been kind to this wine. The color is still a vibrant, youthful ruby with a surprisingly narrow, brickish rim. Red fruits, earth, violets and a touch of graphite leap from the glass. Smooth would be a good descriptor as the tannins have really mellowed. Medium bodied with tart red fruits and a lively mineral streak lead to a long finish. This would be excellent with duck, roasted root vegetables and a currant sauce. If you can still find the 2010 (only 2,500 cases made) grab all you can. It’s a steal at $19.99.

2015 Slavcek Sivi Pinot, Slovenia

Sivi Pinot is Slovenian for Pinot Gris or Grigio. Although just across the border from one of the premiere white wine regions of Italy, Friuli, this is not what most Italian Pinot Grigios look, smell or taste like.

Look at the color. It’s a beautiful pale salmon. It almost looks like a rose. I guess you could also call this orange as it does lean that way. The color comes from contact with the skins as in red wine making. Just a little contact goes a long way with Pinot Grigio as the skins are more grey than white or golden. The skin contact not only adds some color but loads more to the wine.

The nose is yeasty and biscuity. There is some toast and nutty notes with very ripe pear, figs, dried fruits and a hint of citrus. This has some body to it without being heavy or dull. The acidity helps there by keeping it fresh and vibrant. The finish is slightly bitter but I don’t mind as I think it adds another level of complexity to this interesting wine.

If you have heard of orange wines but have not had a chance to taste on look for this. If we can get it in Vermont, I’m sure it’s available in most major metro areas. I think it’s a great introduction to the genre from a 200 year old winery and a steal at under $15.

Light Pasta for a Cold, Wintry Night

Penne, Roasted Cherry Tomato, Tuscan Kale and Rapini

We felt like some pasta on Sunday night but didn’t want anything too heavy. I think this Penne with Roasted Cherry Tomato, Tuscan Kale and Rapini did the trick. It’s hearty enough without giving you that tired feeling after eating it. Drizzled with some really good Extra Virgin Olive Oil it was perfect with a Slovenian Pinot Grigio.

I’m a chef and don’t follow recipes when I cook at home. I look at recipes to get an idea of what a dish is supposed to be or what I want it to be. I then do what I want. I find that it always turns out well. I wish that the average home cook had that same mentality and confidence. Look at a cook book or recipe and then go for it! With that in mind, below is the ‘recipe’ for the dish above.

16 ounces Penne Rigate (We used whole wheat which I did not like. The texture is off. Use a good brand like Barilla or DeCecco)

1 clove garlic, thinly sliced

Canola oil

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved

1 bunch Lacinato Kale (Tuscan Kale), cleaned and roughly chopped

1 bunch Rapini (Broccoli Rabe), cleaned and roughly chopped

Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese

Bring 4 quarts water to a boil. Add a pinch of Kosher salt and then add pasta. Stir. Cook until al dente, about 10 minutes.

After the pasta has been cooking for about 2 minutes, bring about a tablespoon canola oil in a saute pan to medium heat and add the garlic. Cook for a bout 2 minutes.

Add the cherry tomatoes and toss. Cook for about 2 minutes

Add the Rapini and Kale. Stir to mix. Add a few ounces of the pasta water. Cook about 4 minutes.

Drain pasta and add to pan with kale and tomatoes and rapini. Add a few tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil and toss to coat. Place in large bowl (or several small bowls), top with some cheese and serve with more olive oil for drizzling.

Serves 8

 

 

2011 Castello dei Rampolla Chianti Classico

It’s been a while since I’ve had a Chianti Classico. After tasting this I regret having waited so long. I also regret that I did not buy more of this. It was my last bottle and I’m already upset at the realization that I may not be able to drink this wine again. Yes, it’s that good.

Rampolla has been owned by the di Napoli family since 1739. For most of that time wheat, olives and other crops were sharecropped. In 1965 Alceo di Napoli inherited the land and set out to produce wines worthy of the land located in the valley of the ‘Conca d’Oro’ just south of Panzano in Chianti. He planted vineyards and sold some of those first grapes to the likes of Piero Antinori. It would not be until 1975 that he made and bottled his first wines. The estate is now run by his son and daughter Luca and Maurizia after passing away unexpectedly in 1991.

This area, the Conca d’Oro or Golden Basin or Valley, has been historically significant since the middle ages. The valley has a perfect southern exposure making the growing of wheat here special (the valley gets its’ name from the golden wheat fields). So much so that the cities of Florence and Siena were both vying for this land situated in the middle of Chianti. Today, that wheat has been replaced by grapes and this part of Chianti Classico is one of the most exciting areas of the appellation. This is hot bed of organic and biodynamic producers as the conditions are nearly ideal. The producers are very conscious of the fact that they are doing something special in this area of Tuscany. Not only are the exposures almost perfect throughout the basin but the soils are perfectly matched to the Sangiovese grape.

This is drinking well right now with dark red and black fruits wrapped up in an elegant package. The tannins have had time to mellow and the bright acidity keeps everything fresh. There is a touch of smoke, earth, tobacco leaf and just a hint of that Sangiovese barnyard funk (I mean that in a good way). The addition of small amounts of Cabernet and Merlot help this out by adding some complexity. Perfect with Bistecca Fiorentina.

If you can find this buy as much as you can. At $34 it’s not inexpensive but worth every penny.

What’s your favorite wine?

Being in the wine business I get asked this question a lot. And it’s really hard to answer. You may as well ask me what my favorite song is. Or how about my favorite movie? How can one possibly pick their favorite? One day it may be The Godfather Part II and the next it’s Raising Arizona. Two great movies that I can watch over and over again but completely different from one another.

And so it’s the same for wine. It really depends on a number of factors. What is the weather like? What season is it? What am I really excited about right now? These change all the time and so do my favorite wines. I think a better question to ask someone is this: If you could only drink wines from one region for the rest of your life, what would it be? Now that’s a great question that requires a bit of thought.

There are some expected answers such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, Napa and others. But not me. There is a bit too much sameness in Burgundy. (I know that Burghounds are getting ready to stone me right now!). Sure, there is a difference between the spicy, structured wines from Nuits-Saint-Georges and the more fleshy, softer wines of Beaune or Pommard but at the end of the day it’s still Pinot Noir. The same goes for the whites. Yes a Macon is not nearly as concentrated, complex and powerful as a Meursault but they are both Chardonnay (don’t throw the stones just yet). And Burgundy does not offer the range of styles (white, red, rose, sparkling, sweet, fortified) that other regions can. Oh, and did I mention price?

Bordeaux would seem a good bet but there is some sameness there as well. The reds, for the most part, are Cabernet and Merlot based and the whites are Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon based. Yes, I know the different soil types – gravelly on the Left Bank and clay on the Right Bank – yield different wines in terms of structure, power and elegance. But there is not enough of a difference for me. And the price thing again. Yes, there are inexpensive wines but the best are really expensive. And, once again, we run into the lack of style diversity issue again.

I could go on and on detailing why this or that region would not suffice but I won’t. Let’s start to look at some regions that might do the trick. For me, it would have to be a region that offers up a wide range of styles using a wide range of grapes at reasonable prices for even the icon wines.

The Loire Valley you ask? There is a wide range of styles. You can drink sparkling, white, red, rose and sweet wines. Not so fast. The Loire does offer an array of styles to choose from but the grapes are limited to Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc and Melon Blanc (Muscadet). Not enough variety for me.

What about Spain? We haven’t visited there yet. There must be a region or two that offers all I want. Well….close but no cigar. Although I love the wines of Spain and love the cuisine and everything about the country it just would not cut it for me. Basically the whole country, not just regions, are tied to a handful of grapes. Tempranillo, Garnacha (Grenache), Monastrell (Mouvedre) are the main red grapes. Viura, Verdejo and Albarino are the main white grapes. Not enough diversity. And, I can’t think of one region that covers all the styles I want.

Shifting our focus back to the USA brings us to California, Oregon and Washington, the major players. Let’s get rid of Oregon right away for obvious reasons. Washington does not last long on observation for lack of styles. That lands us in Cali. Can you think of a region that gives you red, white, rose, sparkling, sweet and fortified at a reasonable price point? I can’t either.

So, what region would I pick? It’s obvious. The Languedoc-Roussillon.

Vineyard, Minervois La Liviniere. Wine Scholar Guild

Languedoc-Roussillon is the only single region, not country, that I can think of that offers all the styles of wine. The region is the birthplace of sparkling wine in Limoux in 1531. Mutage, adding alcohol to wine to fortify it, was first practiced here 400 years before it was adopted in Portugal. White, red, rose, sparkling, sweet and fortified are all made here. And made well I might add. And the price to quality ratio is off the charts. Even the icon wines are reasonably priced and offer some of the best bargains in the world.

Not only are all the styles represented but within those categories the styles are endless. The number of grapes allowed is, almost, endless. Think of a grape and there is an extremely good chance that someone is making wine with it here.

The region is vast at over 600,000 acres which makes for numerous macro and micro-climates. There are different soils and elevations strewn throughout the area as well.  This all gives rise to the plethora of appellations in the region. And within each appellation there are different styles of wine. It makes the drinking fun, exciting and never boring.

There are too many wines and producers to list. Here are some of my favorite appellation to try:

Pays d’Oc. This is a Vin de Pays or IGP category of wines that opened up the region to countless wine drinkers. There are less stringent rules here and the wines often have the grape(s) on the label. These are inexpensive wines made from local and international grapes that offer great value. The whites are clean and crisp and the reds juicy and easy.

Cremant de Limoux. Excellent, traditionally made sparkling wines based on the Mauzac grape with some Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. These are not as complex as Champagne but they are not meant to be. These, original, sparklers are fruity with ripe, crushed red apple and bright acidity.

Corbieres. This is the regions largest AOC both in terms of production and acreage. The area is old and vast with many micro-climates so there is no one style of Corbieres. That being said the wines tend to be on the rustic side with plenty of the hallmark garrigue (aromas and flavors of thyme, rosemary, lavender, pine) the region offers.

Minervois. Another large AOC size wise. This is probably my favorite of all but it’s hard to say as it depends on what I am looking for (see first paragraph). The wines are powerful blends based on Syrah, Grenache and Carignan. The AOC lies at the foothills of the Black Mountains on limestone soils, perfect for quality wine production. There is an elegance to the wines to go along with great texture. Try to find wines labeled – Minervois La Liviniere. This is a better sub-region considered a Cru of the Languedoc.

Rivesaltes. Fortified wines made in Roussillon from either Muscat (fresh, fruit forward) or Grenache (red, slightly oxidised or fresh and fruity).

So there you have it, the one region I would drink for the rest of my life. Let me know what region you would pick.