Tag Archives: chenin blanc

Bubbles Beyond Champagne: Ten Regions for Fine Sparkling Wine

 

The bottling line at Ferrari in Trentino, Italy.

If you missed my USA Today article, I’ve reposted it here for your convenience. 

Pop, sigh, fizz. The stats are in: Americans love bubbles, having embraced them not only for celebrations but as a year-round drink. Last year, for example, sparkling wine sales in the U.S. grew by 25 percent. Of course, no occasion proves more appropriate for sparklers than the turning over of a new year. As you reach for bottles to celebrate the close of 2017, consider sipping beyond the popular categories of Champagne and Prosecco. High-quality and good value alternatives come from every corner of the world nowadays. So, if 2018 begins with a pledge to broaden your horizons, you can start with the fizz in your glass.

  1. Burgundy, France: Domaine Francois Mikulski, Crémant de Bourgogne

If the best Champagne is made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and Burgundy produces the finest still wines from those grapes, shouldn’t Burgundy have the potential to make wonderful sparkling wine? Well, it does, and it’s called Crémant de Bourgogne. Crémant refers to the category of French bubbles made with the same technique as Champagne, but from outside the Champagne region. Mikulski, a vigneron from Meursault, has some of the finest vineyard holdings in the village, and while his still wines are hard to find, his affordable Crémant (around $24) can still be tracked down around the U.S. Made from 50% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay, and 15% Aligote, the wine is aged for 18 months on the lees, and provides a perfect jumping off point for discovering the category. The wine shows purity of fruit, lovely mineral notes, and a creamy full mousse.

  1. Loire Valley, France: Chidaine, Brut Nature Methode Traditionelle 2015

Like Burgundy, Loire Valley, too, makes superb fizz. But the white grape that dominates the sparklers of this long, river-hugging region is not Chardonnay but Chenin Blanc. Within the appellation of Montlouis-Sur-Loire, across from Vouvray, works and lives François Chidaine. A biodynamic farmer who strives for transparency and authenticity in his wines, Chidaine is revered by many wine lovers and professionals. Every year in small quantities he bottles a 100 percent sparkling Chenin Blanc. He foregoes the final dollop of sweetness, known as dosage, to make a fully dry ‘Brut Nature’. The result: a crisp, mineral-driven wine with a pretty nose and palate of white flowers, pear, and citrus, on a lengthy finish.

  1. Sussex, England: Ridgeview, Bloomsbury Brut 2014

Once the new kid on the block, British fizz has fast proven itself in a competitive category, winning prestigious awards that confirm it’s here to stay. In fact, a changing – warming – climate almost guarantees a long lifespan for the relatively nascent region of Sussex, England. The local climate and limestone soils are akin to Champagne, almost 90 miles south. Cool nights and an overall cooler climate, allow the grapes to retain their bright, sharp flavors even when fully ripe, making it an ideal growing area for the classic Champagne trio: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Ridgeview is a leading producer and one of the easier brands to find in the United States. The Bloomsbury Brut, a blend of all three grapes, has a fine mousse and great finesse, with lively green apple, white peach and lemon notes on the long finish.

  1. Franciacorta, Italy: Ca’ del Bosco, Cuvee Prestige NV

A competition has long been brewing between Italy’s leading sparkling wine regions. Producers located in Lombardy’s Franciacorta naturally declare themselves to be the finest producers of high-quality Metodo Classico, or sparkling wine made in the traditional (Champagne) method. The wines reflect the style, complexity and quality of the premier French region, but taste very much of place. The appellation of Franciacorta falls within the province of Brescia in the hills just south beyond Lake Iseo in Northern Italy. Thus, a cooler climate near a moderating lake allows for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, plus Pinot Blanc, to thrive. Internationally respected brand Ca’ del Bosco is easily recognizable by it golden cellophane wrapping, but it’s the juice inside that earns admiration. The Cuvee Prestige is a blend of the region’s three typical grapes, the Pinot Blanc adding a touch of floral fragrance. Fine bubbles, flavors of apple, lemon, and apricot, and flashy packaging, make this a great choice for impressing dinner guests.

  1. Western Cape, South Africa: Saltare, Brut Reserve NV

If consumers were asked about their impressions of South African wine, they might offer “Chenin Blanc,” “Bordeaux-like reds,” or maybe “Pinotage” but few would likely reference Methode Cap Classique, or MCC for short. MCCs are South Africa’s answer to Champagne. They are high-quality, traditional method sparkling wines that have become so good, they deserve greater global recognition. Yet while they’re easy to find in situ, only a handful make it to the American market. Fortunately, one of the best small producers has a great importer who gets her wine to US shelves. Owner-winemaker Carla Pauw of Saltare wines, named after the Latin word for “to dance,” largely focuses on sparkling, producing a Brut Reserve from grapes sourced in the Western Cape. This bottle is one of her more mature sparklers, with a minimum of 36 months on the lees. This extended aging contributes a fuller body, complexity, and a long, toasty finish.

  1. Mosel Valley, Germany: Dr. Loosen, Sparkling Riesling Sekt

German sparkling wine goes by the name Sekt. Given Germany’s most important grape is Riesling, it’s logical that this aromatic white grape provides the base for most fizz. But sparkling Riesling can prove an unusual taste for those unfamiliar with it; hence, consider starting with an approachable example, from both a flavor and pocketbook standpoint. Enter Dr. Loosen from the Mosel Valley. The Loosen estate has been in the family for 200 years, with some of Germany’s best-rated vines within the family portfolio. The business is currently run by Ernst Loosen, who has taken quality standards to new heights while still delivering great value from his wines. Specifically, the Dr. L Riesling, an entry-level sparkler conveying the elegant, bright fruit flavors derived from the Mosel’s famous steep slate soils, sells for an attractive price. At 8.5% alcohol, and medium sweetness levels, it’s an easy quaffing wine, too.

  1. Kamptal, Austria: Bründlmayer, Brut Sekt

Americans familiar with Sekt likely associate it with Germany, but Austria makes their own version. Grapes typically include Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinots Blanc and Gris, but it’s the indigenous grape Grüner Veltliner that makes Austrian fizz distinct. Located in the famous wine region of Kamptal, Weingut Bründlmayer produces several variations on Sekt. The Brut, made in the traditional method, blend the latter four mentioned white grapes, and gives fine Champagne a run for its money. Offering trademark bottle aged notes of yeasty toastiness, flavors flow into apple, quince, and lemon zest on the creamy palate. A slight peppery note, characteristic of Grüner, reveals itself in the long, crunchy finish. This is an excellent bottle from a well-known producer that provides a good introduction to Austrian bubbles.

  1. Penedès, Spain: Raventós, i Blanc De La Finca 2014

Most consumers who know Spanish sparkling wine think of Cava. There are several prolific brands offering good, entry-level value. But one family has sought to elevate the category beyond the supermarket and into fine wine territory. That family is Raventos, a lineage boasting winemaking traditions reaching back to 1497. In fact, they are credited with producing the first Cava in 1872. However, in recent years, the family has become synonymous with controversy as their focus on organic farming, utmost quality, and terroir-driven expressions has led them to break from the Cava DO to pursue a new appellation, Conca del Riu Anoia. Fundamental to the Raventos philosophy is the use of indigenous grapes in their wines. Those varieties, Xarel-lo, Parellada, Macabeo, make up the blend in the de la Finca, an exceptional traditional method wine that sees a minimum aging period of three years.

  1. Trentino, Italy: Ferrari, Perle Nero 2009

As awareness of styles other than Prosecco grows, and wine drinkers continue to trade up – often drinking less but better – Trentino provides the obvious next stop in Italy. Tucked into the mighty Dolomites of the north, the area’s sparkling appellation TrentoDOC covers traditional method wines called metodo classico. These mountain bubbles are racy, mineral-soaked expressions delivering precision and elegance as a result of their cool-climate, higher altitude origin. The founding father of fizz in Trentino is Giulio Ferrari, who brought the technique of Champagne production to his village in 1902. Ferrari today has grown into a powerhouse producer by Trentino standards, although production’s a drop in the bucket compared to the big houses in France. Ferrari makes easy to find, standout wines in all price tiers, including the “Perle” line which is a vintage expression. “Nero” references the sole use of red grapes, like Blanc de Noir, which gives the wine a deeper, richer, berry-scented palate.

  1. Russian River Valley, California: J Vineyards & Winery, Cuvée 20 Brut NV

As America’s foremost wine state, it should come as no surprise that California produces sparkling wine from myriad regions. However, bubble lovers know the best examples come from cooler growing areas. Why? Brisk air and chilly nights preserve acidity and tension. That’s why vineyards further north in an otherwise warm state, like those in the Russian River Valley, are best suited to the style. One pioneering and widely available producer from Northern California is J Vineyards and Winery. Founded in 1986, J has earned a reputation as one of the best sparkling-focused houses in the U.S. They work with classic Champagne grapes and follow the same traditional method bottle fermentation and aging processes. Their signature sparkler, assembled from their coolest vineyards, is Cuvée 20, a delicious non-vintage brut with 24 months of aging that imbued toasted nut notes to the lively, lemon-custard evocative wine.

 

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Amisfield, Central Otago, New Zealand

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Stephanie Lambert, PhD, is one of a small percentage of female winemakers in Central Otago (and New Zealand generally). She started as assistant winemaker at Amisfield Vineyard in December 2008, and was promoted to winemaker in August of 2010.

Amisfield is still a young vineyard, like many in Otago—it was first planted in 1999, and rewarded with an inaugural vintage in 2002. They are members of the Sustainable Winegrowers of New Zealand. The owners of the winery opened a restaurant, Amisfield Bistro, not far from Queenstown, that developed a popular following for their locally sourced food and tasting menu called “Trust the Chef” which runs $65/person and requires a leisurely 3-hours of one’s time.

Stephanie answered a few questions prior to my arrival in New Zealand, although filled me in on much of her life while we tasted wines and had lunch at the Bistro. We dined on an excellent artisan bread board which had a flavorful sourdough and herb butter combo, plus whitebait (fish gold) and stuffed zucchini blossoms. Relatively unique to the region, Amisfield makes a small amount of Chenin Blanc—definitely track it down if visiting in person.

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Signature Wines and Prices:

  • Amisfield Pinot Noir $45
  • Pinot Gris $30
  • Riesling $25
  • Sauvignon Blanc $25
  • Plus other varieties in very small quantities: Chenin, Gruner, and Pinot Blanc

What philosophy guides your winemaking? Our goal is to make wines with personality, that are a pure and true expression of their site, the weather, and the people that help grow and guide the wine. In Maori: He tangata! He tangata! He tangata! means “It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.”

At Amisfield we try to grow and make wines with integrity. We are very hands on in the vineyard with a full time permanent crew that has some of our longest serving staff. We want our raw environment to lead us rather than for us to put too much influence on the site. We are continuously trialing and experimenting with different techniques and applications in the vineyard to help balance our vines as well as have as little impact on the soils. We put as little on the vines as possible and try to maintain biodiversity in the vineyard. We have ducks, guinea fowl and trout in our ponds. We have an onsite wetland that treats all our winery wastewater which we can then re-use for irrigation. We are slowly converting one of our blocks to organic viticulture. We like weeds as this promotes biodiversity.

The grapes at the winery are treated very similar. We like to handle the grapes as little as possible and have a gravity flow winery built for Pinot Noir. I do not like to push the wines, and over the years I am becoming more relaxed with the grapes and the wines. For our Pinot Noir, we do natural fermentations; I like the complex wild dynamics!

With the whites, I use a combination of natural and inoculated fermentations. Again, I like to make wines with soul or personality. Some bits of the personality might be a bit strange but as long as they are telling a story, I am happy; imperfections can be interesting.

What is your biggest challenge as a winemaker (e.g., volatility of Mother Nature, expense to income ratio, having to actually market your wine)? In Central Otago, it is the weather: no two vintages are the same or can be predicted. I am very lucky at Amisfield, as the company’s philosophy matches my winemaking style. We are driven to make wines of interest, and not so much for the market.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of grapegrowing/winemaking in your region? A benefit for grape growing is the perfect weather for Pinot Noir; but that same cool weather often makes it difficult to get our Chenin ripe. We have a South African Vineyard Manager, so the most important wine in the shed is the Chenin!

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What excites you most about New Zealand wines right now? We are still young but now have some history behind us. We are learning what works on our sites but are also young enough to plant or try different varieties. We have 13 vintages behind us now at Amisfield, and I am just starting to feel I understand the land and the grapes. We can taste our back vintages and see our progression not only in vine age but also as winemakers. It’s a very positive outlook for the region. I like how most winemakers from NZ have travelled and seen other techniques from around the world and come back home and adapt and use these to our wines.

How do you think Americans perceive NZ wines? Hopefully Americans perceive our wines as high quality and unique. (And not Australian.) Our wines are cutting edge, coming from a small yet sophisticated country. I think in general our products are perceived as premium.

What is your favorite non-kiwi wine region? Least? I had a fabulous time in Oregon but that could have been more for the Mexican food and tequila. I was there in 2003 and 2004,so the region and winemakers were still learning a lot, but it certainly made me see how passionate and focused the region was on Pinot Noir. I loved that. I fell in love with Pinot and I fell in love with the Pinot winemakers: their outlook, their friendliness, and dedication to the one grape was fascinating. I love Alsace and Burgundy also. Champagne was not pretty but has a very interesting history, especially since visiting gave me the opportunity to see exactly what the wars did to the region. Least favourite? Well, I worked in Australia for a while and I think the Riverland region in SA/Vic would be my least favourite. Never been there, but mass-produced, clean and calculated winemaking doesn’t suit me.

Which wine or grape (in the world) is the least understood or respected? Well I must say I am a bit boring on this topic as I like the status quo grapes the most and I’m not much of an experimenter. Carignan, or closer to home, Gewürztraminer, perhaps.  I wish we made/planted more of Gewürzt. It’s a lovely wine when made well but also takes a lot of skill to perfect.

What do you drink at home when relaxing? Riesling. I love Riesling with a hoppy pale ale on the side.

How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? I am a solo mum to a 2 year old boy named Jasper, so all my spare time is spent with him having fun and playing games at Lake Wanaka.

If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would  you be? Right now, I would be sailing around the Whitsundays off the Australian coast. A relaxing holiday in the sun, no hassles, just swimming — I love swimming. Probably more realistically, if I was around home, I would be on the wild west coast of NZ, camping with my son in the tent at Okarito Lagoon, hunting for greenstone on the beach, making drift wood huts, and looking at the stars. The added bonus is that there is no cell phone coverage!

Give one surprising fact about yourself. Hmm, not much surprising here. I ran away to Australia for my education and then came back to NZ, so all my secrets are in Oz. University was so much fun, that’s why I stayed so long, and then once I finished my PhD I went back to get a Brewing Post Grad certificate also. Yet to be put to use…

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Why 2014 Will Be Your Best Wine Year Yet

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With the close of the calendar comes contemplation: what have I learned from the wine world in 2013 and what do I expect (or hope) to see in 2014? A few observations: the rise of a new breed of “somm”, the demise of the wine score, the discovery of a Jedi Wine Master, and the impending Best Wine Year Ever.

A Return to the Antipodes

Australia Does the theory “If you build it, he will come” apply to wine? I hope so, because the woeful state of Australian imports in the U.S. belies the health and creativity of the industry Down Under. A recent visit to Astor Wines confirms the lack of antipodean demand — NZ and Oz shared a shelf smaller than the one devoted solely to NY State craft spirits! The Australian wine market has languished for years at the bottom of the U.S. market, so with nowhere else to go but up, expect to see a breakthrough of fresh vinous perspective in stores and restaurants. Importers like Little Peacock, which focus exclusively on Australian wines, have expressed tremendous optimism for the coming year. The wines produced by the new generation of risk-takers in Oz are lean, refined, funky, terroir-driven, and characterful. They don’t all work, but the journey’s as interesting as the destination.
Two to Try: Ben Haines Marsanne 2011, Yarra Valley and Jamsheed “Healesville Vineyard” Syrah 2010, Yarra Valley.

New Zealand This island country faces a different problem from Oz, albeit its wines are still underrepresented in the U.S. New Zealand has done so well with Sauvignon Blanc, the rest of its wines have been ignored. The importance of the grape cannot be overstated. The entire world drinks it (including, to the chagrin of Aussie winemakers, heaps of Aussies). The crisp, grassy style is the New World benchmark for the variety. But there’s plenty more from the land of jagged peaks and glacial lakes to capture a wine drinker’s imagination, and we’re starting to see those wines here in NYC. Fantastic Pinot Noir is trickling out of both Central Otago and, amazingly, Marlborough (the spiritual home to Sauvignon Blanc). For alternative whites, seek out James Millton’s Chenin Blanc. Although produced in the otherwise unremarkable region of Gisborne, he’s been called the Yoda of Kiwi winemakers — a serious endorsement. Is he a true Jedi Wine Master? Drink and find out.
Two to try: Terra Sancta Mysterious Diggings Pinot Noir 2012, Central Otago and Millton Te Arai Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2011, Gisborne.

The New Somm
In the past, a restaurant’s “sommelier” often fell into one of several categories, each of which — in an era of increased consumer wine knowledge facilitated by ease of access to information and greater willingness to experiment with up-and-coming regions — have become increasingly irrelevant.

We’ve suffered through uninformed yet opinionated waiters posing as sommeliers, informed and condescending sommeliers, and, most exasperating, the Grand Cru-obsessed, pompous sommeliers selling 100 percent Western European lists with 100 percent of the bottles priced over $100. Thus, it was about time the role either be redefined or abolished. (Yes, I acknowledge someone still has to build and manage the list.)

Fortunately for restaurant-goers, we’ve met the new generation of enthusiastic, educated sommeliers or “somms” who’ve reinvented their role, gifting us a new reason to dine out: access to diverse, reasonably priced bottles. Sure, we’ve seen prices on certain wines this year soar to previously unseen heights, but for the rest of us scanning the lower end of a list for value, we’re in luck: lots more under $50 selections than ever. And somms have managed to balance their lists serving traditional needs while presenting to the curious a plethora of distinctive wines such as zero dosage, undisgorged crémant from the Jura.
Where to Try: Corkbuzz by sommelier Laura Maniec, Pearl & Ash by sommelier Patrick Cappiello.

Jamsheed

Domestic Affairs
Wine lists and retail stores in NYC used to be dominated by European selections — France, Italy, and Spain — with small weight given to the New World and even less to the juice of our citizen winemakers. However, with increased demand for local and hyper-local food sourcing, we’re seeing the same interest applied to wine. While in the past a reputable fine dining establishment might not dare be caught with anything from the East Coast on its list, sommelier Thomas Pastuszak at The Nomad has embraced our home state. A huge advocate of NY wines, he puts out an extensive list of Finger Lakes bottles. The best part? These wines offer tremendous value — $35 for a bottle of vibrant Riesling with dinner? Yes, thank you.
Where to Try: The NomadFrankly Wines.

Coravin as a Verb
2013 saw the launch of the most lauded device in recent wine history: the Coravin. It’s a wine extraction system that allows the user to pull out a measure of wine, while safeguarding the remaining precious liquid inside against oxidation with inert, tasteless argon gas. Testing has shown the wine can keep for years, allowing drinkers to sample the bottle to check for development or just have a glass of that rare Cabernet bought at auction now and again with a Wagyu ribeye. The pricey but genius device will change wine drinking habits both at home and in restaurants, truly, forever. Del Posto, an initial supporter of the device, offers rare wines by the glass, and Anfora has updated its menu to include a selection of “Coravin Wines.” What shall we Coravin tonight, dear? And a verb was born.
Where to Try: Del PostoAnfora.

Nobody’s Worrying about Robert Parker
Finally, America’s adherence to a mono-palate (Parker’s) approach to wine is on the decline. Although Parker stepped down in late 2012 from his post as editor-in-chief of the Wine Advocate — the newsletter he founded that spawned decades of obsession over a 100-point grading system that favored huge wines — in February 2013, he became the first wine critic inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame in Napa Valley. Perhaps a deserved award, but the collective unfettering of our taste buds over the year has left individuals free to make independent decisions — or at least use more resources to do so. Trusted local retailers in conjunction with social media apps like Delectable and Drync have been filling the void.
Retailer: Le Du’s Wines
Apps: DelectableDrync.

More Curiosity, More Choice 
Overall, NYC wine drinkers are imbibing during exciting times. Whatever we want, short of actually flying to the vineyard, we can find. Wines from Croatia? Blue Danube’s got them. Need that expressive, biodynamic Umathum from Austria? WineMonger’s your importer. Our increased curiosity and willingness to drink anything has encouraged importers to scour the globe and bring us a range of wines that dazzle in their diversity. So, keep sipping folks — 2014 looks to be our best year yet.

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Holiday Sparkling Wine under $20–Stock Up for New Year’s Eve

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As festive as shopping and wrapping gifts can be (if battling crowds in search of the perfect gift to present neatly in a beautiful, Martha Stewart-approved package complete with red ribbon can be considered fun), the joy of the season quickly evaporates when the credit card bill comes in January — and the post-holiday hangover and crummy weather make the first month of the new year depressing enough. To keep your celebratory, seasonal buzz going sans bank-account depletion, you need bubbles that are delicious and well-made, that provide layers of flavor, and that are a good value. I plumbed the under-$20 sparklers at Astor Wine and Spirits (399 Lafayette Street, 212-674-7500) (because most in the $10-$15 category just don’t pass muster) to find out how easy it would be to compile a recommended list.

My goal was to find five bottles worthy of your dollars, but assuming a stinker or three might end up in the group, I left with eight. Amazingly, all picks impressed. Good work Astor, and happy (tasty and affordable) holidays, readers.

Val de Mer NV, Crémant de Bourgogne, Chablis, Burgundy, France, $19.96
Chablis is known for crisp, mineral-driven Chardonnay, but the region also produces bubbles. This Crémant (“Crémant” signifies a French sparkling wine made in the traditional method), has full-bodied flavors of quince, apple, and chalk with vigorous bubbles.

Gruet Blanc De Noirs NV, New Mexico, USA, $15.99
Great value sparkler full of creamy, rich red fruits; this New Mexican house has been around since the 1980s.

Avinyo Cava Brut Reserve, NV, Penedès, Spain, $17.99
Cava has become a mainstream, reasonably priced alternative to Champagne; made in the traditional method with no dosage, this apple and lemon-scented bottle will appeal to those who like their tipple crisp and bone dry.

Szigeti Sekt Grüner Veltliner NV, Neusidlersee, Austria, $18.99
An unusual selection — although not for Austrians — this attractive, Grüner-based wine made in the traditional method is dry and creamy with lemon and stone fruit base notes and white pepper and celery seed laced throughout.

Luis Pato Bruto Baga Rosé, Vinho Espumante 2010, Bairrada, Portugal, $12.99
Ever heard of the Baga grape? You’re not alone if not. This Portuguese variety has been lovingly cultivated by distinguished winemaker Luis Pato — he’s pretty much dedicated his life to it. The resulting sparkling wine has the grape’s characteristic earthiness mingled with red fruits — plus a streak of blood orange — at a superb price.

Ch. Greffe, Vouvray Brut NV, Touraine, Loire, France, $21.96 on sale for $18.96
This delicate sparkler from Chenin Blanc grapes has pretty flavors of Bartlett pear and white peach, and it delivers a bright, citrus finish with each effervescent sip.

Col Vetoraz Prosecco Brut 2012, Valdobbiadene, Veneto, Italy, $15.99
I find much of the ubiquitous Prosecco too sweet and lacking in complexity; this bottle, recommended highly by a staff member, revealed toasty notes with its pear and stone fruit, all in a deliciously dry package.

Contadi Castaldi Rose NV, Franciacorta, Lombardy, Italy, $21.99
Okay, I cheated adding this wine since it technically lies $2 above my price limit. The premium sparkling wine region of Franciacorta is considered the Italian equivalent of Champagne, often with comparable prices, so finding a bottle for $22 piqued my curiosity. Fortunately, the wine’s delicate mousse carried lovely flavors of strawberry and rhubarb pie, making this a wine I would definitely toast the holidays with again.

 

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Carl van der Merwe, Winemaker for De Morgenzon Wines, Stellenbosch, South Africa

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Today marks the culmination of a weeklong celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life as he was buried in his childhood village of Qunu, South Africa. Continuing my conversations with South African winemakers, Carl van der Merwe of DeMorgenzon takes a few minutes to share his thoughts on Mandela, the state of S.A.’s wine industry, and why a tainted wine from a faulty cork is the worst part about being a winemaker.

A brief background on DeMorgezon Wines

“Our slopes rise from about 200m to nearly 400m above sea level and our vistas embrace Cape Town, Table Mountain…with the ocean as a backdrop. While we could call ourselves ‘mountain vineyards’ we prefer to be known as ‘garden vineyards’. In Spring specially, chosen wildflowers flourish between our vines. We have no doubt that a biodiverse and ecologically sensitive environment produces infinitely better grapes and the beauty of our gardens is captured in every bottle of our wine.  We pipe Baroque music through our vineyards 24 x 7 and believe that the power of music positively influences the ripening process. At DeMorgenzon, we are totally committed to excellence and focus on crafting wines which express our unique terroir and fruit within a classic structure – we believe that the finest South African wines combine New World-style fruit with Old World-style elegance.”

Signature Wines:

  • DMZ Rosé ($11.99 SRP),
  • DMZ Sauvignon Blanc ($17.99)
  • DMZ Chardonnay ($17.99), DMZ Syrah ($17.99)
  • De Morgenzon Chenin Blanc ($34.99)

Where were you born and where do you live now?

I was born in Cape Town and have stayed near the mountains and the sea ever since. I am currently living in the greatest wine producing region in Africa, namely Stellenbosch!

How did you get into the wine business?

Before deciding on a career, I did an in-depth analysis of what I wanted and needed in a job to best express my values and interests. I narrowed it down to natural sciences in an agricultural field and being a lover of the outdoors, figured that working in the winelands, which tend to occupy some of the most beautiful spots on earth, was the best option. I planned my course of study and have spent a lot of time travelling around the world to various wine regions in search of inspiration and perspective.

The world witnessed Nelson Mandela’s passing and burial this week. Do you feel he made a contribution, either directly or indirectly, to the wine industry?

Nelson Mandela’s release from jail and subsequent formation of a transitional government, aided the dropping of sanctions that strangled not only South Africa’s ability to trade internationally, but also South African wine producer’s desire and ability to be exposed to an international wine market. Since 1993, a greater percentage of winemakers have traveled abroad and returned with a keen sense of South Africa’s unique selling points, and the importance to produce wines that compete on an international level. Winemakers, although proudly South African, benchmark their wines and abilities against the best in the world and have brought a new sense of focus to the industry. Winery owners desire to make “world class” wines has assisted in raising the quality bar with the necessary investment in facilities and vineyards.

What is the mood around the country right now?

South Africans are a resilient, hopeful and strong people. We have weathered the storms of migratory, political, social and environmental change. At times we have been on a tipping point but hope, forgiveness and a genuine desire to “make it work” is evident amongst the vast majority of us. We are all saddened at the loss of Mandela, but his legacy surpasses his physical presence.

What is most and least rewarding about being a winemaker?

Most rewarding are probably the people who all share a common interest in good food and good company–not to mention good wine! Least rewarding and bottom of the list are great bottles of wine tainted by faulty corks.

What are the challenges of making wine in your region?

The Cape can get very hot and windy in summer and this can result in stressed vineyards and rushed picking dates. To achieve a balance of freshness and ripeness one needs to be very in tune with your vineyards and able to make rapid picking decisions.

What excites you most about South African wine right now?

Freedom. We are not bound by rigorous industry control and there is so much opportunity to innovate and be recognized.

What do you drink when relaxing at home?

A glass of cold South African Chenin Blanc is always a treat, otherwise, I have a small cellar of international wine and I really enjoy drinking great wines from around the world.

If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be?

In Piedmont, Italy during truffle season!

Which wine or grape is the least understood or respected?

Nebbiolo from Barolo or Barbaresco.

What types of food do you enjoy?

I love cooking with fresh ingredients, especially fresh sea food. Fresh mussels cooked in white wine cream and herbs with fresh crusty bread is one of my favorites. Fresh Cape Crayfish, lightly boiled and finished on the barbecue is also a great treat.

What music do you listen to?

I often have to listen to my children’s CD’s for as long as I can handle; otherwise, my personal choice is varied and suited to my mood. Anything from classical to jazz and hard rock.

Winery dog?

Yes–Dottie and Jane, Jack Russell terriers.

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Abrie Beeslaar, Winemaker for Kanonkop, Stellenbosch, South Africa

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Continuing my conversations with South African winemakers this week, Abrie Beeslaar of Kanonkop takes a few minutes to share his thoughts on Mandela, the state of S.A.’s wine industry, and why a judgment of Paris with South African wines is long overdue.

A brief background on Kanonkop:

Founded in 1910,  the fourth generation family farm, presently run by brothers Johann and Paul Krige, has been owned and operated by the Sauer-Krige family since the early 1930s. The name Kanonkop is derived from a “kopje” (small hill) on the property, from which a cannon was fired in the 17th century to announce the arrival of the Dutch East India Company’s trading ships at Table Bay.  Situated on the lower slopes of the Simonsberg Mountain in Stellenbosch, Kanonkop encompasses just over 247 acres of vineyards at altitudes of 195–395 feet above sea level.  Kanonkop boasts some of the Cape’s first commercially planted Pinotage vines, with an average age of over 50 years. These are maintained as traditional bush vines, while the Bordeaux varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc are trellised. The estate’s legendary Pinotage serves as a benchmark for this unique and exotic South African grape.

Where were you born and where do you live now?

I was born in Worcester and now reside on the Kanonkop farm which is located on the lower slopes of the Simonsberg Mountain in Stellenbosch.

How did you get into the wine business?

I wanted to study Medicine, but did not qualify to get in. They recommended that I study agriculture for a year, and then reapply. I never reapplied.

We all witnessed around the world, the passing of Nelson Mandela this week. Do you feel he made a contribution, either directly or indirectly, to the wine industry? What is the mood of the country right now? 

Mr. Mandela made a huge difference, both directly and indirectly. For instance, he improved land security and helped make South Africa more visible to the world. To talk about his legacy is a humbling feeling, and I think 99% of South Africans are morning the country’s loss, and are refocusing on what Mr. Mandela fought and stood for,

What are the challenges of making wine in your region?

The biggest challenge is the wind, and trying to figure out the intrinsics of each vintage.

Have South Africans’ wine preferences changed in the last 10 years?

I don’t think the South African wine consumer has changed differently than the rest of the world. The consumers are buying from the shelf to drink immediately; they are also buying wines they can understand, for instance a wine that has coffee aromatics.

Do you think South African wines have any particular reputation in the States that you think is inaccurate?

I think we still have a chance to establish ourselves as a quality driven country. Unfortunately, people are not prepared to take a risk on a wine at a higher price point. I see too many cheap wines in the market with labels I do not recognize. We must also do a Judgment of Paris with S.A. wines included!

Which wine or grape is the least understood or respected? I think Pinotage is not fully understood by most, but it is still respected.

What do you drink when relaxing at home? I like properly aged wines, especially from Burgundy and Italy.

What types of food do you like to eat? Like any South African, we are born with Braai tongs in our hands. So all kinds of meat, and my wife’s homemade sausage.

If you could be traveling right now, where would you be? Germany, in the Mosel!

Kanonkop Cannon at Sunset

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Interview with Peter de Wet of Excelsior Wine Estate, Robertson, South Africa

Peter de Wet

In light of Nelson Mandela’s passing and the publication of my article on his vinous legacy, I decided to offer South African winemakers a channel through which to share their stories. I interviewed a handful of winemakers and winery owners regarding their thoughts on Mandela’s influence on the industry and the mood of the country as it mourns this week. We also dig into the challenges of their respective regions, the food and music they prefer, and everyone’s favorite, winery dogs.

Peter de Wet, Winemaker for Excelsior Wine Estate in Robertson, South Africa

Signature Wines:

Excelsior Chardonnay, Excelsior Cabernet Sauvignon, Excelsior Syrah and Excelsior Sauvignon Blanc. All listed at $9.99.

Where were you born and where do you live now?
I was born in the pretty town of Montagu, about 10 miles from my current home on Excelsior.  

How did you get into the wine business?
I was born into it. We have been farming and making wine on Excelsior for 150 years –I am the 5th generation. Some of my earliest memories were of sitting in front of my father on the motorbike staring at vines.

The whole world witnessed the passing of Nelson Mandela this week. Do you feel he made a contribution, either directly or indirectly, to the wine industry?                            

Mandela made a massive contribution. SA was at a precipice in 1992, and civil strife was a very real possibility. We only have to look at the many examples in Africa to see that this creates long, lasting problems. Mandela saw the big picture and lead form the front. He got all races to pull together and in the right direction. Our business has grown exponentially in the following 20 years and SA is a better place. There is still a lot more to do, but at least we know that we can do it. All South Africans should be grateful to this great man.

What is the mood around the country right now?

Strange and not how I expected. There is sadness, but more a reflection of what he stood for and what we can learn from that. There is also a celebratory vibe, we celebrate his life. Take a look at our blog for an interesting story that my cousin Anton told about an interaction he had with Mandela.

What is most and least rewarding about being a winemaker?

I find it very rewarding following a vineyard’s path from planting to the production of quality grapes, and finally seeing customers enjoy it! Wine is possibly the most fascinating agricultural product. The most depressing part of my work is unfortunately the weather–having rain during harvest can destroy a whole season’s hard work.

What are the challenges of making wine in your region?

Robertson is well-adapted for wine growing. There aren’t too many challenges; we are blessed with a dry climate, which means we rarely need to  spray, and wonderful limestone soils. We are not well known as a wine region which is a challenge, but Roberson is growing its reputation as an area for producing quality wine.

What excites you most about South African wine right now?

South African wine manages more complexity in its wines than most New World regions. We are still new in the sense that the modern phase of the wine industry only really started in the early 1990’s. There is huge potential for growth.

What do you drink when relaxing at home?

Wine! I love crisper, mineral-y styles of Chardonnay, whilst in winter, Cabernets really hit the spot. I also have a soft spot for Rhone-style reds.

What kinds of food do you enjoy eating?

There is nothing better than a South African braai (barbeque). Lighting a fire with real wood (never charcoal) waiting for the coals to be the right temperature, whilst enjoying a glass of wine, and then cooking whatever is available. Recently, I have been braaing quite a bit of game fillets. The trick is to have a hot base of coals, and then just sear the meat for about 3 minutes per side. The meat is incredibly tender and flavoursome. We often post recipes on our blog The Horse’s Mouth.

What music do you listen to?

Anything that gets my two year old son Matthew dancing. Super cute!

Is there a winery dog?

Of course! My dog is a German Shepherd called Nyanga.

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Nelson Mandela and His Vinous Legacy in South Africa

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Interviews with South African winemakers will follow this piece over the next few days, including comments on the recent passing of Nelson Mandela and his role in expanding and improving the wine industry.

Throughout the week, South Africans will gather to grieve en masse the loss of Nelson Mandela. A courageous statesman, Mandela began his political life as a young Soweto lawyer steering the resistance against apartheid, only to be imprisoned for twenty-seven years for his labors, later emerging to become president. Undoubtedly, his post-release navigation of the country away from the shores of a civil war into a peaceful, thriving, multiracial democracy will be regarded as his greatest achievement, and one for which he won the Nobel Prize.

However, Mandela’s leadership had other positive ripple effects — for example, it helped expose the local wine industry to the outside world, forcing improvements in viticulture and winemaking practices. Thus, this week we pay tribute to his extraordinary legacy through a missive exploring South Africa’s wine country.

The Cape wine industry is considered New World despite the arrival of vines via the Dutch in 1655. The industry’s three and a half centuries of production were as fractured as the country’s politics, and in several key instances, mirrored the nation’s political movements. Setbacks included the devastating wrath of phylloxera, a rash of overproduction, restrictive quotas, and a significant knock-back in the form of international trade sanctions in the ’80s as protest against apartheid. However, many credit Mandela as having influenced, both directly and indirectly, the Cape Winelands’ transformation into a modern New World industry. Authors and South African wine authorities Elmari Swart and Izak Smit expound upon Mandela’s impact:

This rather unsophisticated local market, when compared to international markets, did nothing but limit the winemaker’s scope for creativity. It was only after Nelson Mandela’s release from political imprisonment and the subsequent elections in 1994, that serious international focus fell on the South African wine industry. Mandela’s support for South African wines formed a necessary political stepping stone for the true emergence of Cape wine. Mandela toasted his 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with Cape wine. —The Essential Guide to South African Wines

I journeyed to South Africa two years ago and fell in love at first sight — it was easy to see for what Mandela was struggling to keep free but intact. The unrivaled drama and grand cinematic beauty of the Cape Winelands — rumpled terrain, mist-shrouded peaks, and endless green velds — coupled with the gravity of her complicated history, a country that’s collectively endured the peaks and troughs of joy and sorrow electrified my senses and left an indelible stamp on my spiritual passport.

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In addition to the scenery, the wineries themselves impressed. The charming architecture often reflected the classic Cape Dutch look, but several were über-modern, full of glass and steel; all capitalized on the dramatic views, gardens, and countryside greenery available to them. Perhaps my deep captivation hinged on the fact that the gap between my expectations and the actual degree of sophistication was so wide. After all, the country’s modern wine industry was still nascent, begun not long after dismantling the apparatus of apartheid.

Overall, the wines were of reasonable price for good to very good quality (although only occasionally sublime). South Africa is associated with Chenin Blanc — also called Steen, but the name’s use is dwindling — and Pinotage, but the Rhone and Bordeaux blends stood out, and varietal bottlings of Syrah, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay deserve consideration.

Unfortunately, frequenting South African wine country is made difficult by a very long flight — 17-hours direct from JFK to Jo’burg, then another two-hour flight to Cape Town — so most of us may ever only taste her vinous fruits on our shores. To that end, a few months ago, I gathered nearly 40 bottles from our local market to suss out the best of what’s available here at home. Many bottles were samples, some I purchased and a few I pulled from my personal collection (those are still available in our region).

I gathered a panel of 20 friends and colleagues. We made boerewors sausage, peri peri shrimp, bobotie, lamb sosatie, and chakalaka, attempting to marry the spirit of South African foods with the wine.

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We tasted poorly made wines, a number of classic styles (e.g., oak-aged Chardonnay), and several killer bottles. However, a large percentage of the wine we sampled sat firmly on the right side of safe, offering broad mainstream appeal to international tastes while lacking maverick spirit. As the industry is still young, it is likely on track to have a second wave of winemakers with a renegade approach that’ll bring more cutting-edge wines to market. Perhaps the movement is underway now — it’s hard to know without being on the ground, and the interesting, small production stuff isn’t often exported (a major selling point for traveling!).

My resulting list of 10 picks, with input from all tasters, is Chenin Blanc- and Stellenbosch-heavy, in part because those wines showed the best, but also because we had more of them in the sample pool. These 10 wines are by no means meant to suggest the top in our market (we didn’t taste everything), and they shouldn’t discount the fact that wonderful wines are made in other regions like Constantia, Swartland, Franschhoek, Elgin, etc. But they are good and provide a range of price points to suit your wallet.

It’s also worth noting that the Mandela family has entered the wine business, producing a line under the name House of Mandela. Makaziwe (Maki) Mandela and Tukwini Mandela, respectively daughter and granddaughter of Nelson Mandela, came to New York in October to show their Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Sauvignon Blanc. I haven’t tasted the wine, so I cannot comment, but it appears Mandela’s wine legacy will continue, at least for a few more generations.

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Kanonkop Pinotage 2010, Simonsberg-Stellenbosch, $35 
The finest Pinotage I’ve ever tasted. Smoke, red and black berries, an edge of minerality, and a full-body with decadent, silky mouthfeel. Will convert Pinotage detractors.

Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc 2011, Stellenbosch, $15
Made by a Chenin specialist, this bright, citrus-scented, tropical fruit-filled wine, with obvious but carefully integrated oak, shows a hint of nut and spice on the finish.

Raats Original Chenin Blanc 2011, Coastal Region, $14 
A great value for under $15 — I’ve found it for close to $10! The wine is refreshing and lively with pineapple, crisp apple, and floral notes. Thanks for keeping this one out of oak.

Cape Grace Chenin Blanc 2011, Western Cape, NA,
Loaded with tasty white fruits like apples, peaches, and pears plus a kick of honey and guava, too. Bright, cheerful wine.

Bartinney Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Stellenbosch, $29 
The winery sits nestled high on the slopes of Helshoogte Pass, the altitude providing concentrated flavor and fresh acidity to this dark berry-, plum-, cocoa-, and fig-saturated wine.

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Thelema The Mint Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Stellenbosch, $39 
The panel favorite, I found this bottle hidden in a cabinet — another taster tried to save a final glass for herself. Notes of mint lace the classic Cabernet flavors in this balanced wine, but just enough to provide interest without overwhelming.

Rudi Shultz Syrah 2010, Stellenbosch, $30
A rather big, meaty wine with smoked-bacon, mocha, anise, blackberry, and pepper, made by a next generation winemaker who is also winemaking for Thelema.

Excelsior Chardonnay 2012, Robertson, $9 
Super value, enjoyable white plumped up with 3 percent Viognier, showing peach, apricot, and pineapple — a perfect aperitif wine.

De Toren Fusion V 2008, Stellenbosch, $50
I drank this post-panel, but it probably would’ve been a contender for the top prize — after all, it is the winery’s premium bottling. A concentrated, elegant, well-made wine, like drinking crushed velvet, showing hints of leather and tobacco interspersed with dark chocolate and blackberry. A wine for angels, the producer writes. I agree.

De Morgenzon Chenin Blanc 2011, Stellenbosch, $35
A “high-achiever” if you follow scores, this solid wine spent almost a year snuggled in new and older oak, but the mouthwatering acid and citrus, acacia honey, and stone fruit notes remain intact. SRP is $35, but I have seen for $25.

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Where to Eat in NYC:
Madiba, 195 Dekalb Ave, Fort Greene, 718-855-9190. On Sunday, December 15, at 6 p.m., the restaurant will be screening the funeral from Qunu, South Africa, with a prayer and live performance by the South African Allstars.

Where to Buy in NYC: 
Chelsea Wine Vault, 75 Ninth Avenue, 212-462-4244
Union Square Wines, 140 Fourth Avenue, 212-675-8100
Astor Wine and Spirits, 399 Lafayette Street, 212-674-7500

 

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