Tag Archives: champagne

Long Weekend in Champagne

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Less than a two-hour drive from Paris (or 45 minutes via TGV train) lies the near-mythical French region of Champagne, a (champagne) bucket-list destination for wine lovers who consider it the pinnacle of sparkling wine production. The region’s grand capital at Reims offers more to do than dabble in bubbles—visit the monumental cathedral, hike the scenic trails up Montagne de Reims, or rent a bike to cruise around town. However, champagne, as in drinking it, is still predictably the primary attraction.

While highlights can be crammed into a pleasant (but long) day trip from Paris, you’ll miss out on the charm of the surrounding villages where legions of small grape-growers, whose manicured vineyards blanket the countryside, produce their own bottles rarely found in stores or restaurants outside France. Plus, champagne sold in Champagne is refreshingly affordable—bring an empty suitcase to haul your liquid treasures home.

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DAY 1

Arrive in Reims in the morning, and get started with a tour of the historic, underground chalk caves (followed by a glass of bubbles, naturally) at a couple of the venerable, big-name champagne houses, clustered in the southern part of town: Pommery, Taittinger, Veuve Cliquot, or Ruinart.

For lunch, seek out local favorite eateries like Le Bocal, a cute, 12-seat seafood purveyor-cum-restaurant; Hall Place, a wine bar with adjoining retail shop in the back; or the refurbished Brasserie L’Affaire, offering a reasonably priced and tasty prix-fixe steak frites lunch.

For true sybarites, the obvious end to an afternoon of champagne tasting in Reims would be to dine at the hands of a Michelin-starred chef, and then retire exhausted to a lavishly appointed room. Fortunately, Reims is blessed with two properties providing both: Le Parc restaurant at the Château Les Crayères and A. Lallement at Hotel L’Assiette Champenoise.

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DAY 2

Pick up a rental car and a map, or better yet, hire a driver (expensive, but worth it if you have the funds) to visit the smaller grower/producers dotting the landscape surrounding Reims. Budget an hour for the drive to Épernay on a route skirting the picturesque Montagne de Reims. The nearby Grand cru vineyards produce some of the world’s most expensive Pinot Noir grapes—stop off for tastings at village producers along the way, where, although appointments are generally recommended, many serendipitous experiences stem from simply knocking on doors. Proprietors will generally not charge for a tasting, but appreciate the purchase of a bottle.

For a guaranteed stop on your itinerary without the restraint of an appointment, Henri Giraud, in Ay, allows walk-ins (but does charge for tastings). The tasting room is modern, more art gallery than wine shop, and staffed by a knowledgeable, English-speaking host.

After a day of champagne touring, you can either return to Reims, or stay the night in the little village of Avize to wake up amidst the chardonnay vines of the Côte des Blancs. Try Les Avisés Hotel and Restaurant, a cozy, tastefully designed property, run by Anselme Selosse of Champagne Jacques Selosse fame. In Épernay proper, there are only a handful of smaller guesthouses; nearby, the beloved, if fading, La Briqueterie, has characterful common rooms and expansive grounds.

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DAY 3

If open to yet another day of tasting (of course you are—you’re in Champagne!), visit one of the major houses based in Épernay such as Moët et Chandon, Dom Perignon, Mercier, or Nicolas Feuillatte.

Alternatively, continue the road trip further south for a short village-by-village trek through the fabled Côte des Blancs region, realm of chardonnay, Blanc de Blanc (chardonnay-based champagne), and the prestigious vineyards of Cramant, Avize, Oger, and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.

Heading back through Épernay by late afternoon, don’t miss a stop at one of the world’s greatest champagne stores, 520, along Avenue Paul Chandon. With your newly savvy palate, stock up on hard-to-find and small-production bottles of the utmost quality, at better-than-cellar-door prices.

Conclude your champagne-soaked weekend with a visit to theCathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims. Equal in size and majesty to theNotre-Dame in Paris, the cathedral has witnessed key moments in history since the 13th century, including over thirty coronations, shellfire during the First World War, and the German surrender in World War II. Depart the cathedral to take a leisurely walk north towards the train station if catching one back to Paris, while considering how visiting Champagne was a key moment in your history.

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Mondays Are Better with Bubbles: Ruinart Champagne and Chef Michelle Bernstein

1998rose

Thinking about Monday on a Sunday tends to induce a range of feelings from anxiety to dread. However, I recently spent a weekend joyously anticipating its conclusion so that come Monday, October 19th, I could spend several hours tasting Ruinart Champagne (tasting, not drinking—it is a Monday, after all). Hosted by Frederic Panaïotis, Chef de Caves at Ruinart, the event was held in a private Greenwich Village loft with renowned Miami Chef Michelle Bernstein orchestrating a beautifully paired lunch.

I have known Ruinart for over a decade, but didn’t realize the brand had only been in the States for the past 6 years (I must’ve been imbibing it in Europe). Considering Ruinart is the oldest Champagne house, established by Nicolas Ruinart in the city of Reims in 1729, and is currently owned by LVMH, it’s hard to believe they have a relatively young presence in our market. And imagine–in 2029, the house will reach 300 years of expertise in the art of Champagne production. Very few wine brands in the world can boast such longevity.

TableSetting

Speaking of art, the house is a great patron of contemporary art and design; for instance, they are the official Champagne of Art Basel. However, Ruinart demonstrates a greater interest in supporting the arts than having “artists” support its wines, particularly whilst gyrating until dawn in a nightclub. The house does not court the baller contingent that has the power to propel brands such as Louis Roeder’s Cristal into becoming a staple reference in hip-hop lyrics and on overpriced bottle service lists. Ruinart’s purported goal is to reach the sophisticated, thoughtful oenophile, which, last I heard, was neither Ke$ha nor the legions of Jay-Z wannabes (although Jay-Z himself has apparently quit Cristal over a case of reverse ‘dis by the brand, which of course depends on whether you view the rap industry’s unique way of embracing the wine, to have been respectful or disrespectful in the first place.)

Michelleinthekitchen

Back to Monday’s lunch. Four wines were presented: NV Ruinart Blanc de Blancs in magnum, 2002 Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, NV Ruinart Rosé in magnum, and 1998 Dom Ruinart Rosé. Something to note–all Ruinart vintage wines age for 12 years on the lees, followed by at least a year in bottle. The length of ageing shows, producing wines of finesse, intensity of flavor, and fine texture.

Although I had come to Ruinart through their Blanc de Blancs, Chardonnay being the foundation of the house cuvées, and, in their words, “the very soul of Ruinart,” I left smitten with the rosés. The NV is comprised of 45% Chardonnay from the Cotes des Blancs and 55% Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims. Aside from its red berry perfume, the wine had a beguiling note of dried rose petal that left me sniffing as much as tasting. The 1998 vintage rosé Dom Ruinart displayed very different color and character, as you might expect from a Chardonnay-dominant wine with 14-plus years of age (85% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Noir vinified as red wine). Flavors leaned towards the tart red fruit spectrum with citrus and pink grapefruit on the long finish. A superbly aged but not yet mature wine appropriately paired with a final course of cheese.

Cheeseplate

The friendly and accessible chef, Michelle Bernstein, demonstrated through her dishes how Champagne can be served with every course of a meal. Apparently an enormous fan of Ruinart, she proclaimed “why leave bubbles for special occasions or as an aperitif when they can be paired with everything!” After experiencing lunch with her and her muse Ruinart, I concur.

Below, I have included an image of the menu, shots of the loft and its vintage décor, and, of course, the food.

Menu

Loftandtable Ruinartandcurios Salmoneggandcaviar loftlivingspace

Tablesetting-2 Menunesltedinnapkin Shrimpandpopcornstarter Bowloffigs

Cassouletfoie Champagneandchess Oysterstarter oldradio Loftbar Ruinartbox

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Four Alternative Sparklers to Champagne and Prosecco

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This holiday season I am putting to rest two widely held notions: Champagne is the only way to celebrate stylishly, and if you can’t afford Champagne, you must drink Prosecco.

Both have their place, but so do other regions that produce exceptional sparkling wines using the same time consuming, laborious method as the Champenois, with wallet-happy results.

So, let’s take it from the top!

Bubbles for Beginners

All sparkling wines undergo two fermentations: The first turns juice into wine; the second creates the bubbles.

Authentic Champagne comes from the Champagne region in North-Central France and the rest is sparkling wine. The Champenois have effectively stopped the rest of the EU (but not the Americans) from labeling sparkling wine products “Champagne,” hence the term méthode traditionnelle (traditional method) to identify wines made similarly.

To be considered traditional method, the second fermentation must take place in a bottle, spurred by the addition of yeast and sugar. Next, the wine must spend a minimum amount of time aging on the dead yeast (lees) to gain the desirable bread crust, biscuit and brioche notes for which Champagne is renowned. Finally, the yeast is coaxed into the neck of the wine bottle, the lees are frozen then expelled upon the uncapping of the bottle, and the bottle is corked.

Champagne alternatives
Keep in mind these suggestions are not replacements for Champagne; they don’t taste like Champagne because they aren’t Champagne. Rather, each region offers a sparkling expression of its time and place. But would you only travel to Paris when you could also visit Tokyo, Cape Town and Bali?

FRANCE: The French have perfected the art of bubbles, and produce them all over the country in the style of Champagne, identifiable by the term Crémant. Two regions to try:

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Crémant d’Alsace: I once had a sommelier tell me he wouldn’t put Crémant d’Alsace on his list because it wasn’t trendy enough. Ironically, this category of fizz tops the charts in sales amongst the French, after Champagne; gaining favor when the economy was tanking and bubble enthusiasts wanted less expensive, high-quality alternatives. The postcard-pretty region, set in the shadow of the Vosges Mountains, has been making sparkling wine since the 1880′s. The grapes allowed are Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, Riesling and Chardonnay. Pinot Noir is the only varietal for blanc de noir or rosé. If you can’t afford rosé Champagne, look to Alsace for cheaper yet charming options.

Wine to find: Gustave Lorentz, Crémant d’Alsace Rosé NV, $24. This clean, crisp 100% Pinot Noir with a rose-petal tint exudes strawberry, raspberry and bright orange zest flavors with a hint of spice. Cheap and charming with a party-perfect hue.

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Crémant de Limoux: Located on the mountainous, western edge of the Languedoc, most people haven’t heard of this region; a good thing if you appreciate high QPR in your wines plus bonus points for obscurity. Locals claim a record of sparkling wine production that precedes Champagne, meaning they have been working on the formula a long time. The wines are made from three grapes: Mauzac, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. Modern Crémant styles utilize Chard and Chenin, but the ultra-traditional, more rustic Blanquette de Limoux is made from a majority of Mauzac.

Wine to Find: Gérard Bertrand Crémant de Limoux, $13. This dry, bright wine made from Chardonnay (70%), Chenin (20%) and Mauzac (10%) is how I imagine Chablis turned Crémant might taste. Fresh, zippy apple notes hang on an austere frame with nuances of bread dough and a chalky, mineral-laden finish.

ITALY: Prosecco is fun and friendly, but not made in the traditional method. Italy has two appellations offering serious yet affordable contenders to Champagne:

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TrentoDOC in Trentino: Metodo Classico wine production in Italy dates back to 1902 with the founding of Ferrari winery in Trentino. Guilio Ferrari learned to make Champagne in Épernay then returned home to produce his own luxury brand, bringing along the first Chardonnay grapes to be planted in Italy. The high-altitude vineyards of the appellation, nestled at the base of the Dolomite Mountains in North-Central Italy, produce stunning, refined and structured wines. The region would be poised for recognition as the premier producer of Italian sparkling if more of the 38 wineries were picked up for exportation. As it stands, Ferrari is the dominant, albeit superior, producer available in the U.S. Although four grapes are allowed for sparkling: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Blanc, blanc de blancs (100% Chardonnay) is the regional highlight.

Wine to Find: Ferrari Brut NV, $25. This creamy, elegant blanc de blancs with persistent perlage, offers bright lemon, fragrant pear and fresh bread-dough, for an incredible price. Make this your “house” sparkling.

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Franciacorta DOCG in Lombardia: Franciacorta has at times been referred to as the “Champagne of Italy”, though never by the producers themselves who loathe the comparison. The wines are crafted where the Italian Alps descend into Lago D’Iseo in Brescia. The name Franciacorta applies solely to sparkling wines from this area, made in the traditional method using Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Although the history of sparkling here is nascent as compared to Trentino, Franciacorta enjoys greater name recognition in the U.S., thus wider distribution and slightly higher prices. Relative to Champagne, however, the quality to price for these structured, elegant wines is still outstanding.

Wine to Find: Ca’Del Bosco NV Cuvee Prestige Brut, $35. Packaged like Cristal, this house’s entry-level bottling is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. The wine shows vibrant acidity, a creamy mousse and hints of pear, apple skin, and hazelnut, with a touch of honeyed happiness on the finish.

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Sparkling Wine Week: Where to taste free bubbles in NYC

As the chill of December descends upon us, we can’t help but notice the holidays have arrived. And what would the holidays be without a glass full of bubbles? Would a Fraser Fir be a Christmas tree without lights?

To put the “holiday” in your season, I am celebrating all things sparkling this week, starting with where you can try before you buy. Below is a list of the best gratis sparkling tastings throughout December in NYC.

Flatiron Wines and Spirits

Throughout the month, Flatiron will be focusing on Champagne and sparkling wines every Friday night from 5-8 pm. This Friday, December 7th they are showcasing a grower Champagne, the big trend out of the region the last few years. This is definitely a tasting to hit if you haven’t had a chance to sample this category of Champagne (wines are made by the growers of the grapes, rather than the big houses or brands). 929 Broadway, (212) 477-1315

Astor Wine and Spirits

This comprehensive shop is offering the following impressive line-up of tastings:

December 7th, 6-8 PM: Sparkles by André Clouet

December 12th, 6-8 PM: A taste of the Belle Epoque (a rare chance to taste Perrier-Jouët “Belle Epoque” Champagne 2004)

December 27th, 6-8 PM: A Selection of four Grower-Producer Champagnes

December 28th, 6-8 PM: Champagnes of Terry Theise Selections

140 Fourth Avenue, (212) 675-8100

Union Square Wines

Known for the generous tastings, USQ justifies their reputation with a big, boozy holiday party on Saturday, December 8th from 2-5 PM. With at least two dozen bottles of sparkling wine popped, you can expect a little of everything including grower Champagnes, Spanish Cava and Italian Lambruscos. 399 Lafayette St., (212) 674-7500

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Where I am going – Trento, Italy for Metodo Classico Camp

Good Morning Trento!

Have you ever wished to learn how to make Champagne? Perhaps attend an intensive course held in the shadows of the Dolomite Mountains in Northern Italy, led by leaders in the art of the Italian version, Metodo Classico?  Thanks to Ferrari Winery and the Lunelli Family in Trento, the first ever Metodo Classico Camp went forth last week!

Metodo Classico, like Méthode Traditionelle and Champagne, refers to the painstaking process of crafting sparkling wine by inducing a second fermentation of the still base wine in a bottle by adding sugar and yeast; allowing the wine a minimum ageing period on the lees (spent yeast) for complexity; and the unwieldy process of riddling and disgorgement which is the consolidation and removal of the yeast, while keeping the sparkling wine under pressure and in the bottle. Phew. What a pain, but the finest and most complex sparklings in the world are produced this way.  You want to drink the best, right?

Day 1 of the inaugural camp, and I am honored to be in the company of a handful of wine pros from the U.S. as we join Ferrari winery in learning about the regional topography and viticulture in Trento, as well as Ferrari’s method for sparkling wine production.

Here are some images from the first day:

Sun is shining over Ferrari today!

Stand-up provided by Marcello, Luke and Philip

Tasting from the tank

A toast to base wine – there would be no bubbly without it!

A walk through the cellar

They keep the naughtiest wines behind bars

So lazy, resting while her lees do all the work…

Beauty in the bottling line

All days should end at the Villa Margon

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