Tag Archives: champagne

Why Pairing Wine With Your Super Bowl Snacks Isn’t Pretentious

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Wine shouldn’t be foisted onto every culinary event; no matter how grand or mundane, some matches are better left alone: the Kentucky Derby and bourbon, or bagels, lox, and black coffee (OK, a glass of Champagne wouldn’t be so terrible with either). “Super Bowl & Beer” sounds like another archetype that doesn’t need tinkering. But there’s a case to be made for wine.

Consider traditional binge-watching football foods: bean chili, beef-cheese-jalapeño-smothered nachos, Sriracha hot wings, short-rib sliders, guac and chips. At first glance, pairing wine with any of these might sound like a disastrous exercise in pretentiousness. On closer examination, though, there are, in fact, a number of wines that would temper heat, complement spice and salt, and cut through fat better than a beer. We’re not suggesting you forgo the keg of Founders All Day IPA, but consider supplementing your beverage rotation with these five wines.

Sparkling Wine
By now, perhaps you’ve heard of the Sommelier Special: pairing a high-brow bottle of Champagne with a humble bag of Lay’s. Champagne’s chalky, bright acid and persistent stream of effervescence has a way of cutting through fried, oily dishes like chips and fried chicken. But Champagne is expensive, and few of us wish to waste it on a bag of spuds (or our Patriots-supporting frenemies). Look to American bubbles instead.

Roederer Estate Brut, NV, California, $21: Best-value, complex American sparkler made using the Champagne method.

Zinfandel
I’m not talking about the white kind (that comes in a box and is called Franzia), but the ripe, juicy red stuff pumped out of the classic regions of Sonoma, Lodi, and the Dry Creek Valley in California (also found in Southern Italy, where it’s called Primitivo). If you’re inclined to pair junk food with your vino (no judgment), you might enjoy the synergy found between a sip of Zinfandel and a mouthful of spicy Doritos, a ubiquitous Super Bowl snack. Zin also complements spicy-sweet meat dishes like pulled pork, and baby-back ribs doused with Dinosaur BBQ sauce.

Bedrock “Old Vine” Sonoma Valley, California, 2013, $25: Full-bodied, lush, with black cherries and spice.

Sherry
This fortified wine from Andalucía in southern Spain elevates salty foods like cured meats (ordering a six-foot-long Italian sub?), olives, and peanuts, and fried finger foods such as calamari, spring rolls, or croquettes, from mindless pop-in-your-mouth status to “holy crap, what did I just eat?” sublime. Pick up a crisp, bone-dry, saline Fino (made via the biological method; no oxidation) and a richer, nuttier style like amontillado.

Valdespino, Fino “Inocente” NV (375 mL), $12.99: Tastes of almonds and ocean breezes.

Lustau Dry Amontillado “Los Arcos” NV, $15.99: Nuts, dates, dried fruit.

Sauvignon Blanc
This crowd-pleasing, workhorse white pairs surprisingly well with chile-pepper-laden dishes, especially bell peppers, jalapeños (which have a flavor profile also found in Sauvignon Blanc), poblanos, anchos, and serranos. Notoriously difficult wine pairings like artichokes (found in dips or fried), tomatoes (think salsa), and the herb cilantro (also in salsas, guacamole, and most Mexican food) love Sauvignon Blanc. The wine’s bright flavors range from herbal to tropical; classic examples are from New Zealand and Sancerre, but South Africa increasingly makes compelling, well-priced versions.

Seresin, Marlborough, New Zealand, 2012, $24.99: More money, more complexity than the typical NZ S.B.

Mulderbosch, Stellenbosch, South Africa, 2014, $14.99: Easy to find, easy to sip, a little grassy, and a little tart.

Rosé
Who says you can’t drink pink in the winter? Or while watching football? To quote Julia Child, who incontrovertibly knew her shit, “Rosés can be served with anything.” Why? Rosé straddles the world of white and red: It delivers zippy, palate-cleansing acidity with enough body and fruit to stand up to typically heavy game-day dishes. Dry rosés work particularly well with charcuterie, BBQ, hamburgers, pork, and even sausage. Like she said: anything. The only problem with rosé is tracking it down in the middle of winter. Fortunately, Sherry-Lehmann stocks emergency cases of pink year-round.

Chateau d’Aqueria, Tavel, France, 2013, $18.99: Ripe berry fruit, a hint of tannin, and fresh acidity.

Where to Buy:

Astor Wine & Spirits, 399 Lafayette Street, 212-674-7500

Sherry-Lehmann, 505 Park Avenue, 212-838-7500

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How Bad Is Your Champagne Habit?

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New Year’s Eve has arrived! Did you meet all your goals for 2014? No matter. You can reiterate them again on the first of the year, with a fresh glass of bubbles in hand: Make more money and cut back on carbs (or will 2015 be the end of an allergy return of gluten?), booze, and podcast binges.

Since Champagne and sparkling wines have long been the de rigueur drink of choice for New Year’s Eve (and for the days of recovery after), this year — as long as you don’t saber off the bottle tops — you can keep precious CO2 (fizz) trapped in the wine for almost a week, with a little life-support from a Genesis system.

SaberTime

But before I delve into my review of the Genesis and whether your Champagne habit justifies its $500 cost, here are a few bottle recommendations — some favorites from 2014 — worth seeking out for tonight’s toast.

Deal Disguised as a Splurge
Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Brut, 2004, $129
This historic Champagne house produces an exquisite, exceptionally priced vintage tête de cuvee from Chardonnay grapes sourced exclusively from grand cru sites.

Good Value Champagne
Champagne Deutz, Brut Classic, NV, $42
Well-priced, lesser-known label owned by respected house Louis Roederer. So good, it was once the private-label Champagne of Morrell’s Wine Shop, which still carries the brand.

Italy’s Finest
Ferrari Perle, 2007, $38
This sparkling wine house out of Trentino, Italy, does what Champagne can, but for a lot less money: It makes long-aged, layered, elegant, and lively wines, including this vintage bottling, for half of what a Champers would run. The Ferrari entry-level NV Brut is a particular bargain, too, at around $20.

Grower and Organic
Pascal Doquet, Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru, $59.99
From a producer/grower who has diligently converted his vineyards to organic, a rarity in Champagne. This bottle is a blend of those organically farmed grapes from premier crus in the southern Côte des Blancs.

Back to the Genesis…

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The Genesis, created by Napa Technology, is the first at-home, single-bottle wine preservation and dispensing system, designed for both still and sparkling wine. You may recall the big hit from last year, the Coravin, which — at one-eighth the size of the Genesis (akin to an oversized Rabbit Corkscrew), and for $200 less ($300 v. $500) — seems like the hands-down winner when compared with the Genesis, until you factor in the former’s incompatibility with bubbles.

The Coravin system inserts a slim needle into the cork, dispenses inert gas and draws out wine like a feasting mosquito, all while keeping the cork intact and the bottle fresh indefinitely. It can’t be used with Champagne, however, due to the air pressure in the bottle; hence the reason you (debatably) need a Genesis, too.

Genesis uses a proprietary technology called IntelliCork: Once the wine’s real cork is removed, the user places the bottle into the system (designed to sit on a kitchen counter and tuck in just below most cabinetry), so oxygen can be removed and replaced with “WineGas” before the bottle is topped with a special cork. Still wines save for two months; sparkling wines earn five extra days.

The product is composed of a silver base and black plastic casing, giving it the appearance of a giant, skinny coffee maker; it comes with two corks for still wine and one for sparkling, plus two canisters of WineGas, which is enough to preserve and pour 24 bottles.

After assessing the machine, I found it easy to use and capable of keeping my sparkling wine frothy. However, I’d recommend buying the Coravin if you like to sample wines over a longer period of time than two months, have space restrictions, and your bubble preservation needs range from minimal to the point of novelty.

But — and this is a big but — for regular drinkers of expensive, pressurized wines, i.e., Champagne (who are you, and can we be friends?), then Genesis is the only product on the market that can squeeze a few more sunsets from the bottle.

And for drinkers who wish to sample and save several sparkling bottles at once, they will need to invest in a few more specialty corks which cost a hefty $59.99 apiece. (The system only comes with one sparkling wine IntelliCork.)

Perhaps greater than for the home user, I see the practicality of restaurants investing in the system: They can offer a greater number of better-quality selections of sparkling wine by the glass, and do double duty preserving still wines, too.

The upgraded Genesis Pro, thus, is designed for tasting rooms and restaurants, costs $899, and comes with 10 IntelliCorks and enough WineGAS to preserve 40 bottles.

If your go-to sparkling is Freixenet (not that there’s anything wrong with it), the Genesis probably doesn’t fit into your budget, but it does give you something to aspire to when making your 2015 resolutions.

Happy New Year!

May 2015 bring you peace, prosperity and good wine.

Where to Buy:

Genesis: $499 plus shipping, is sold at GenesisPreserve.com, Amazon.com, WineEnthusiast.com, and NapaStyles.com

The Wines:

Chambers Street Wines, 148 Chambers Street, 212-227-1434
Flatiron Wines, 929 Broadway, 212-477-1315
Astor Wines, 399 Lafayette Street, 212-674-7500

 

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Alquimie: The Most Ravishing Drinks Magazine in the World?

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It looks like my days of hoarding handsome magazines have returned.

Wrapped in plain brown paper, my first copy of Alquimie arrived from an unfamiliar overseas address. Pulling it from the packaging with the excitement of an unexpected gift, I thumbed through the weighty edition’s pages, and instantly felt a potent nostalgia for the days of print. Is Alquimie the most ravishing drinks magazine to publish in the last decade?

While adopting a model of print media and shipping the cumbersome result around the world from its founders’ base in Australia sounds like a great way to turn any size pile of money into a smaller one (like owning a vineyard!), the team behind it hopes a readership yearning for beautifully written content and presentation, will support the effort.

Alquimie’s motto “breathing new life into drinks” certainly pertains to the physical attributes of the magazine, although it’s more reminiscent of a journal with its quarterly publishing schedule, matte cover, and heavy paper stock.  Each page shows careful, artistic intention both in layout and gorgeous photography. This tactile approach, meant to lure a base of practical romantics who long to hand write notes with the smooth comfort of a Mont Blanc fountain pen between the fingers, but succumb to email for the majority of their correspondence, will charm them (me) as intended. To address that important practical side, however, they’ve developed a sleek website.

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Fortunately, the authors, sourced from the founding team and journalists around the world, write articles as compelling to read as they look on paper.

The current edition (its third) tackles a diverse landscape of topics ranging from coffee, Armagnac, whisky, and little-known Swiss grape varieties. Food, integral to the experience of drink, also receives treatment: this quarter, author Tony Tan explores the sub-regional cuisines of China. In a section devoted to tasting and reporting on spirits and wine called The Palate, they review boutique Champagne, consider the nuances of vodka (nuance being the operative word), and compare notes on several value wine recommendations through the lens of professionals v. the lay taster.

Supplementing their subscription fees, Alquimie offers an interesting addition to the traditional media model: they sell wine. Josh Elias, the Editor in Chief, handles the selections, and although he says there isn’t a strict criterion on how he chooses the bottles, the people behind the projects share a similar narrative in that they are “small producers doing things a little bit differently.”  The wine subscription offer applies primarily to Australian residents unless foreigners have the wallet for astronomical, overseas freight charges.

So who is behind Alquimie? Four colleagues who consider themselves friends first, business partners second, according to Josh. The other three publishers and founders are James Morgan, Photographic Director; Nicholas Cary, Creative Director; and Raul Moreno Yague, Chief of Contributors.

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I emailed Josh a few questions to learn the impetus behind Alquimie’s creation, and to ask what they believe they add to the global beverage conversation. We also addressed favorite cocktails, up-and-coming producers in Victoria, Australia, and how Josh would like to be traveling in two places at once (Sicily and Piedmont).

What inspired the creation of Alquimie?

We wanted to produce a print publication that we could read ourselves. We couldn’t relate to the existing offerings. We wanted to produce something a little more democratic, less authoritarian with more of a focus on the narrative (the narrative of the story & the document). Drinks require context. Be it a dining table, or a time in history. The concept of ‘drinks in a vacuum’ never made sense to me.

What was your previous (or concurrent) profession?

I am a law graduate, who worked in a family business in the fabric industry and then spent nights working as a sommelier in fine dining. My grandfather quite rightly calls me a jack of all trades, master of none. Though, I’m studying the Master of Wine qualification at the moment, which hopefully means that one day I’ll prove him wrong. Alquimie occupies most of our time at present. Even when we are doing other tasks, working other jobs, it is on our minds.

How did you decide on the name?

It was about creation and narrative. We wanted something that hinted at a story and a science combined. We felt Alquimie — the original french derivation of Alchemy — ticked those boxes.

Did friends or family have doubts about taking the print channel, including global shipping?

For sure they were skeptical but I guess part of that comes from being protective. In terms of the evolution of print and the changing of that industry, we believe that the timelessness of our publication, our careful selection of tried and tested subject matter differentiates us from other, timelier magazines. We aim to be a reference piece. Our publication doesn’t mention current events or index the ‘hottest new releases’. Alquimie is not a guide or an index for instant answers, it is an opportunity to sit down and let your mind wander. I think our family and friends relaxed once they saw and felt the magazine. The quality of the finishes helps to create a universal acceptance of quality. Much of that is due to James’s photography and Nic’s design. They make my job, as a drinks writer, very easy.

What are you attempting to add to the world of drinks publishing? What did you think was missing?

I think it was missing accessibility and a sense of context. As an industry, drinks publishing is fairly good at communicating about the product, in isolation. However, wine media, as an example, are very much focused on the projection of their ‘objective truths’. To this end, the writing can be somewhat authoritarian and dictatorial. We wanted to step away from that style. It doesn’t benefit the consumer who may be trying to develop their own palate or embrace the beautiful variables to be found in drinks, of which there are many. Such is the problem with that phenomenal addiction known as ‘wine-scoring’. It doesn’t answer any of the ‘why’ questions. Rather, it encourages blind following. It also has the consequence of shortening the conversation with the consumer. It unduly simplifies the product to the point which, I believe, is somewhat disrespectful to the people who put all the effort into the growing, making and marketing of their product.

We prefer to talk about fewer products, giving each of them the respect that they deserve. These points are true for writing about coffee, water, spirits, etc. However, wine is a good example because I believe it to be the most experienced drink, in terms of communication. Our decision to write about all drinks, also helps to break down a few of the expected ‘norms’ associated with wine writing.

What’s your favorite type of wine? Cocktail? Nightcap?

In terms of wine, I’d say that I drink either of pinot noir or nebbiolo most often. However, I try to taste widely in order to keep my palate sharp. As for spirits, I’m a sucker for Armagnac; the heat, the warmth and the sweet, spicy flavors. An old bottle of Darroze doesn’t go astray. As for cocktails, an old fashioned or a negroni are the two that you’d most likely catch me drinking.

What’s new or unique to the drink world in Victoria, Australia that people should know about?

Patrick Sullivan, BobarLinnaea winesMelbourne Gin Company, Four Pillars Gin, and Madenii Vermouth. First and foremost, these are great people. Secondly, they create products with unique personality. They have curly edges and stark flavours. Most of all, they are delicious.

If you could be traveling anywhere right now, where would you be?

That’s hard. I’d say Sicily. Usually I’d say Piedmont because Barolo is my favourite wine region. However, there is such an amazing array of viticultural styles across the island. From the zesty whites and structured reds of Etna, through to the floral reds of Vittoria or the rich fortifieds of Marsala. The seafood and the pasta dishes are sensational and a welcome accompaniment to the wines. Not to mention the beach, the sun, and the architecture. Rock formations poking out from the sky blue water…. Getting carried away here….

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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 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 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. Unfortunately, guests have no special guarantee of opportunity to buy his coveted wines. 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 bubble-soaked weekend with a visit to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims. Equal in size and majesty to the Notre-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

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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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