Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Life is Demi-Sec

Christmas and especially News Years just scream champagne. Champagne with dinner, drunken champagne toasts to the New Year, and mind-bending champagne hangovers on New Years Day.

As a budding wine snob this is a crucial time of year for you. What better way to celebrate Christmas than to cut your snotty brother-in-law down to size by sneering at the bottle of André that he brought to dinner and giving a lecture on the differences between CO2 injection, charmat and méthode champenoise processes?

But before we get carried away, let’s start with the basics. The first thing you need to know about champagne is that "champagne" only comes from the Champagne region of France, near Paris (pair-EE). Everything else is a "sparkling wine". So when brother-in-law Bob refers to his bottle of André as "champagne", you can slice him into even smaller pieces.

But there are excellent sparkling wines from all over the world, not just France.

Italy produces some fine sparkling wines, referred to as spumante (spoo-MON-tee), including the infamously cheap asti spumantes. However, some of the best Italian sparkling wines are dry wines made from the prosecco grape. In Spain, sparkling wines are referred to as cavas. Most cavas come from Catalonia and use native Spanish grape varieties. And, of course, California makes its fair share of sparkling wines.

Now I grew up in Bob’s house. My parents bought basic André for “normal” special occasions and Cold Duck for the really special occasions. Until recently (like last week, when my editor suggested doing a column on “champagne”), I knew very little about sparkling wines other than they gave you kick ass hangovers. In fact, the high point of my sparkling wine career was when I was the “bartender” at my sister’s wedding and served bottles of Cold Duck out of a trashcan filled with ice. I was so sick from drinking that stuff that I literally wanted to die.

But if you want to do better than Cold Duck – and show up your brother-in-law – you need to know a little more about sparkling wine.

For one thing, sparkling wines come in varying levels of sweetness. The driest style of sparkling wine is referred to as “brut”. No way! Oh man, I always wondered what that meant! I always thought it had something to do with the strength of the wine, you know, “That sure is a brut of a champagne.” In fact, a brut is just a sparkling wine with little or no residual sweetness.

Next on the dryness scale is “extra-dry”, which really means “slightly sweet.” After that comes “sec” (literally “dry”, but actually somewhat sweet), “demi-sec” (“half-dry”, but actually pretty sweet), and “doux” (“really sweet”). Who came up with this stuff? Some drunk French guy. ‘Nuff said.

Sparkling wines may also say “blanc de noirs” or “blanc de blancs” on the label. This has to do with the grapes used to make the wine. French-style sparkling wines are typically made with some combination of pinot noir, pinot meunier (pee-No moon-YAY), and chardonnay grapes. Blanc de noirs (“white of blacks” – don’t go there) are wines made from the red pinot noir grape. However, the skins are removed soon after pressing, leaving a lightly salmon-colored wine behind. Blanc de Blancs (“white of whites”) are made from white chardonnay grapes and make very delicate light wines.

And what about that CO2 injection, charmat and méthode champenoise stuff that you used to chainsaw old Bobble-head Bob into little chunks? They have to do with how the bubbles get into the sparkling wine. The méthode champenoise (may-TOD sham-pen-NWAHZ) adds a second fermentation to the winemaking process that adds the bubbly to sparkling wines. This takes a lot time and attention, and produces finely carbonated wines. The charmat method is cheaper and faster and ferments the wines in pressurized tanks where the resulting CO2 is forced back into the wine. As cheap as this is, it’s still better than CO2 injection method, which is exactly what they do to Coca Cola to give it carbonation. Only really cheap stuff – like André – uses this method.

Next week I’ll review and recommend four sparkling wines for the holidays, each under $20 a bottle.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Sparkle, Sparkle Little Wine

Wines of the Week

Mumm Napa Blanc de Noirs (BLAN de NWAHR)

Blanc de Noir (literally "white of blacks") is a dry sparkling wine made primarily from red pinot noir grapes. However, the skins are removed early in the wine-making process, leaving a elegant light salmon color wine behind. This is a fine sparkling wine for the holidays or New Years. It's flavorful and full-bodied enough to stand up to the stronger flavors of a Christmas dinner, while delicate enough to not overwhelm the more subtle flavors. Hints of cherry and strawberry. Nicely balanced acidity. Available at CostPlus World Market for $13.99 and at Creekside Cellars. 4 stars.

Loredan Gasparini Proseco Brut (pro-SEK-koh)

Prosecco is a white Italian grape that is used to make slightly sweet or dry sparkling wines. This prosecco is completely dry. It has a very delicate color; in fact, it's nearly clear. Clear citrus aromas of grapefruit, lemon, as well as apricot. This is a very crisp, dry sparkling wine. It has a very strong flavor and feel of grapefruit, with the sharp, but pleasant acidity. Not overly complex but extremely refreshing. This would be excellent with a soft cheese like brie or camembert, or by itself on New Years Eve. Personally, I would buy a few bottles and put them in the back of the fridge and wait for July. This wine would be the perfect cold wine drink on a hot July day in Chico. $16.00 (a bargain) at Vino 100. 4 stars.

Chandon Blanc de Noirs

The Chandon Blanc de Noirs is a wonderful light sparkling wine. Unlike the Mumm Blanc de Noir, this wine lacks even a hint of pinkness, and is a very light and pure straw color. On the nose it's somewhat sweet and appley, with just a hint of lemon. On the tongue it has a bright acidity which makes it very refreshing. Citrusy, slightly grapefruity flavors come through. Actually, it reminds me of a nice Riesling more than anything else. This is a very refreshing and light wine, that I think everyone will like. Rated 87 points by Wine Spectator magazine. $12.59 at Costco. 3.5 stars.

Scharffenberger Brut

This is a commonly available wine. The Scharffenberger brut is a decent sparkling wine. Creamier, but not as aromatic on the nose as the Chandon. On the palate, the Scharffenberger has a pronounced caramel note, but overall tastes more like a light pilsner than a sparkling wine. It's not a very fruity wine, but it is dry. Less crisp than the Chandon. A decent, but not outstanding effort. Very drinkable. 3 stars. Available at Costco.

Lucien Albrecht Blanc de Blancs Brut (BLAN de BLAN)

Not technically a champagne, since it comes from the Alsace region of France instead of the Champagne region. A blanc de blanc, this wine is made from pinot blanc grapes. However, its very chardonnay-like on the nose with prominent butter aromas. The taste is also very chardonnay-like, with butter, cream and just a touch of green apple. Very dry, and a bit on the tart side, this wine will appeal to people who like chardonnay, but may be unpleasant to others. Available at Creekside Cellars for $18.99. 2.5 stars.

Korbel California Champagne Brut

Now we're getting into the stuff you can buy anywhere. Korbel is known far and wide as a producer of inexpensive California sparkling wines (translation: cheap champagne). Of course, this isn't a real champagne, and they shouldn't be using the name, but they are so deal with it. Very candied and sweet on the nose like some appley hard candy. It really has a very clear aroma of apple juice, which is actually not that appealing unless you're having a Martinelli's. Not much flavor on the palate. A hint of that apple juice, but it's actually mostly just fizz. If it wasn't so cheap, I'd say give it a miss. Available everywhere, but Costco has it for $7.99. 2 stars.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Gifts for the Wine Snob

Before I begin, and in the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I’m not real big on the whole Christmas…uh, no, “holiday” gift thing. For one thing, I don’t really enjoy giving gifts. I mean, you’ve got to try to figure out what someone wants, go through the insanity of the “holiday” shopping mobs, pay through the nose for the thing, and then watch the look of disappoint or disgust on their face when they open the crappy present that you spent so much time, energy and money getting. I generally don’t like getting presents for the same reason. “Oh, look! A 2-liter bottle of Carlo Rossi rosé! My favorite!”

I honestly prefer to skip the whole thing. I know. Bah humbug. But personally, I’ve never been convinced that the spirit of “the holidays” had much to do with commerce.

But apparently I’m not a typical American in that respect. So, succumbing to the demands of the season, let’s take a look at common “holiday” gift giving ideas for the wine snob in the family.

First of all – and let’s be clear about this – there is no end of gift ideas for wine snobs. Your serious wine snob is typically a person with both money and a hoarding fetish – in other words a perfect target for the likes of The Sharper Image. There are entire websites filled to the brim with wine-related gadgets and googahs, most of them perfectly worthless and hideously expensive.

Case in point: corkscrews. Corkscrews are living testimony that useless innovation isn’t limited to mousetraps. There are complex “rabbit” corkscrews that actually look a bit like abstract rabbit heads ($35-50). There are lever-action corkscrew stands that take up half your kitchen counter and look like very painful medieval torture devices ($100). There are even high-tech cork pumps that inject compressed air into the bottle to pop the cork out ($25-35). All of them do exactly the same thing: open wine bottles. I use a simple “waiter” style corkscrew ($5-15), and personally recommend them. Real wine snobs know that the lowly waiter-style corkscrew is the most prestigious.

Another common gift idea is wine glasses. There is great controversy in the wine world over whether the shape of the glass affects the taste of the wine. Riedel (rhymes with “needle”), the world’s premier wine glass manufacturer, makes 44 different glasses in their Sommelier line ($80 per glass), one to fit every variety from Alsace to zinfandel. This is overkill (ya think?). Studies have shown again and again that the shape of he glass has little effect on the taste of a wine. I personally use two basic sets of cheap glasses, a red wine set and a white wine set. Of course, they’re somewhat mixed sets because I keep breaking them.

Without a doubt the worst wine gadgets on the market are the plethora of “instant aging” doodads that are supposed to instantly turn your 2004 Two Buck Chuck into 1982 Chateau Latour. I actually bought one of these things in order to debunk it, but I haven’t tried it yet. The one I got comes in a nice wooden box. It’s essentially a ring that clips onto the bottle’s neck. As you pour, the “powerful magnets instantly break up the tannins. The result: a smoother more balanced wine that simulates the taste of aged wine.” Riiight.

So now that we’ve eliminated a bunch of useless gift ideas, what should you buy your favorite wine snob? You know, something that’s actually useful.

Wine chillers are nice (hint, hint). They’re thick wine buckets (usually stone or ceramic) that you store in the fridge or freezer. When you serve a chilled wine like Champagne, you set the bottle in the pre-chilled chiller, and it keeps the wine cold. Bonus: they actually work!

Decanters are essential for anyone who is serious about red wine. I plan to write an entire column on decanting wine, but for now take my word for it: get a decanter and decant your red wines for at least an hour before you drink them. That will do a thousand times more to make that Two Buck Chuck drinkable than any magnet. It’ll do wonders for that ’82 Latour as well. No kidding. I prefer decanters with a moderately wide base. The really wide ones are almost impossible to pour and tend to be heavy.

But let’s face it; the best gift of all for the wine snob is wine. I recommend the 2006 Carlo Rossi rosé.

Ah…but that’s the problem, isn’t it? What wine to get them? Well, that’s why God invented gift certificates. In Chico, I recommend getting gift certificates at either Vino 100 (next to Sports LTD) or Creekside Cellars (near Morning Thunder). Both have fine selections of wine as well as decanters, glasses and other wine knickknacks. In fact, I’m beginning to feel the spirit of “the holidays” coming over me. So if you want to get me a gift certificate, I’d be happy to accept.