If you ask me, Lily Bollinger, doyen of the famed Champagne house, said it best. When she was asked ‘When do you drink champagne?” she replied:
“I only drink champagne when I'm happy, and when I'm sad.
Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone.
When I have company, I consider it obligatory.
I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am.
Otherwise I never touch it - unless I'm thirsty.”
The one embellishment I could possibly make on that statement would be to add a variety of other quality bubbly beverages to the menu. One cannot live just by champagne alone. The world of wine is simply too big and too exciting.
A recent excursion to the well-stocked rooms of the Wine Exchange in Santa Ana CA confirmed my beliefs when I was treated to ‘flight’ prepared for a small group of Southern California writers from the International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association. Entitled “All That Sparkles”, our energetic and always wine-curious hosts, Kyle Meyer and Tristen Beamon, who continually seek out the interesting and exciting, proved yet again that Winex’s ‘open door policy’ when it comes to wine representatives and smaller producers, pays off. “You never know what’s out there” they told us as their faces lit up like little kids with a secret. “We like to ‘mix-it up and have fun. Be festive and bring on the fun stuff.”
And true to form, they kept their promise, taking us down an effervescent path covering sparkling wines from France, Spain, and California.
Domaine Rosier Cuvée Jean Phillippe Brut Blanquette de Limoux 2014 ($10)
There are many things I adore about bubblies from the Limoux region of the Languedoc in Southern France. One is that it’s a beautiful spot with the vineyards laid out on the higher elevation slopes of the majestic Pyrenees. Another is that the name is really fun to say: ‘Lee Moo’. But on a more serious note, when the label says ‘Blanquette de Limoux’ then you know you’re drinking history, as this is the oldest sparkling wine in the world. Rumor has it that Dom Perignon learned the secret to crafting sparkling wine (later to be known as the MethodeTraditionelle) from the monks at the Abbey of Saint Hilaire in Limoux!
This is a delightfully refreshing wine and a great way to kick off any party, evening or whenever! The main grape is a local one – Mauzac - and it lends an energizing note to the wine. White flowers, blanched almonds, lemon curd and red apple skin flavors abound, with a bevy of fine ‘bulles’ that just don’t quit. Blanquet is a style of wine meant to be drunk ‘young’ so pop those corks and enjoy!
Recaredo Brut Nature Gran Reserva Terrers 2009
OK, now it was time to get a little more serious. “What?” you say. “Serious? With a Spanish Cava? Surely, you jest?” Well, no, I don’t actually and here’s why.
It’s true that Cava, the traditional sparkling wine produced primarily in the Catalan region of Penedes, has long been misunderstood. Yes, there are mass produced versions of the wine. They are tasty, relatively inexpensive and many wine drinkers would most likely not include them in their ‘serious’ list. Yet, to do so, would be a huge mistake. There are many amazingly talented and dedicated Cava producers who are taking this regional specialty, created with the local grapes Xerel-lo (Chair-el-OH), Macabeu (Mac-ah-BAY-oh) and Parellada (Pair-ah-YAY-dah), to new and deliciously exciting heights.
Recaredo is a prime example of the trend, if you can call 90 years of craftsmanship a ‘trend’! Here in the heart of Cava country, the charming village of Sant-Sadurni d’Anoia, the Capallades family creates terroir driven cavas from their own biodynamic estate vineyards. Their motto is “There can be no wine without life in the vineyards’ and there is certainly life in their wines.
They still complete most every step in the winemaking process by hand and in a traditional manner, including using a cork closure on the bottle while it’s undergoing the secondary fermentation (the one that creates all those bubbles), hand ‘riddling’ or turning the bottles, a little bit every day so that the sediment (a result of that second fermentation) finds its way to the neck of the bottle for easy removal. This cava spends 65 months, on the lees, in the cool cellars under the streets of Sant-Sadurni, until it is finally disgorged by hand. The result is asparkling nectar worthy of its place on the wine menus of many Michelin starred restaurants.
Elegant and highly sippable, the bubbles form a long and persistent stream, with aromas of soft apple, lightly creamy crème brulée and ripe stone fruit. With its superb structure and enveloping flavors it’s a super choice to enjoy before and during any meal, or pair with a nice fire and a friend.
Cariaccioli Brut Cuvée 2009 ($40)
What do you get when you blend high quality, estate grown grapes from California with the expertise of a world class Champagne expert? Something splendid. And delicious.
Michael Salgues, has been the winemaker for Cariaccioli Cellars since its inception in 2006, Well known and highly respected, he was instrumental in the success of Roderer Estates, overseeing their California winery from 1985 – 2004. He brings a wealth of experience, combining many traditional French champagne and sparkling wine techniques with California character. “Smooth and Cultivated” is their goal and this they achieve – handily.
This 2009 vintage Brut is crafted from old-vine Chardonnay and Pinot Noir sourced from classic, cool, Santa Lucia Highlands vineyards where the fruit is allowed to mature to maximum ripeness. You can tell at first whiff that this is California wine – that voluptuous round, ripe and rotund nuance on the nose is the first giveaway – but the palate and finish are where the French influence comes into play. 40% of the wine is barrel fermented in older oak, lending a creamy touch without an overtly ‘oaky’ connotation. We’re talking ripe pear, apple, soft toasted brioche, tropical pineapple and nectarine freshness. It’s an ‘umphy’ sparkler, more akin to the Recorado Cava mentioned earlier. This winery is putting the “sizzle in California sparkling wine” shared our host Kyle and I must agree.
Marie Hanze Eaux Belle Brut ($28)
In my world there cannot be a bubbly buffet without something from Champagne. This little gem is what many would call a ‘Grower champagne’. The majority of the fruit is from the winemaker/producer’s own vineyards, rather than sourced from other growers, which is the common practice amongst many well-known houses.
Producer and winemaker Nicolas Maillart represents the 9th generation of his family to cultivate vineyards in the softly rolling ‘mountains’ of the eastern curve of the region known as the Montagne de Reims. Located just south of the famous city of Reims, Maillart practices sustainable viticulture, embracing the biodiversity of the land to create wines that speak of the terrior and the clay/limestone soils.
This non-vintage blend of 60% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Muenier and 10% Pinot Noir, is mostly a product of the 2013 vintage and spends a minimum of 2 years aging in the bottle resulting in a constant and lively stream of small, dancing bubbles in the glass. This is the kind of champagne that can take you from that first, welcoming glass of the evening all the way through to cheese and conversation at the end of the meal. It’s fresh and bracing with just a whisper of light toasty. With crunchy apple, citrus and nectarine and a balanced, mineral-laden finish, this could possibly become your ‘house’ wine.
Soucherie Cremant de Loire Rosé 2014 ($20)
If you think ‘pink’ sparklers are sweet and sticky, here’s a little charmer from the incredibly beautiful Loire Valley of France that will do much to change your perceptions! This famous region is known for its fairy tale chateaux, verdant vineyards and wide variety of easy drinking wines
Château Soucherie is one such treasure, producing a variety of still, sweet and sparkling wines from the principal grapes of Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc that thrive in the clay and sandstone shale soils of the region.
When this stupendous little sparkler is poured into the glass, the soft strawberry pink hue (and corresponding rosy ’mousse) sets the mood. This is festive wine whether the occasion something special or just the fact you’ve made it through another day.
The aromas are all bouncy berries – ripe red strawberry, raspberry and cranberry with touches of refreshing watermelon. It’s round yet fresh at the same time with a clean, focused finish.
Apparently, this wine is made as a ‘side gig’ to the more serious offerings of the producer and they conjure up a mere 3,000 bottles each vintage. Luckily, Winex has scooped up 1200 of them. Drink now with all those holiday meals – rosé is the perfect foil for a wide variety of foods – and put a few away for February. This one has ‘Valentine’s Day’ written all over it.
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The life of a wine writer is often a solitary existence. Contrary to what many may imagine, it’s not all swirling and swilling, but hours of study, research, composition, editing, and, well, you get the idea.
So when there’s an opportunity to spend a few hours with like-minded vino lovers, sample wines and investigate intriguing food pairings, it’s a chance I don’t let slip away.
The Temecula Wine Council is such a group, comprised of professional wine, food and travel writers plus regular ‘wine loving citizens’. We manage to carve out a few days each year when all our schedules co-inside, like a fortuitous astrological forecast. Wine samples are collected and each member is entrusted with a bottle. Their mission: pair and prepare a complimentary dish.
While there is congeniality there is also serious contemplation as each attendee , in turn, speaks about their assigned wine – its producer, history, vineyard and vinification – and what inspired their culinary creation.
Our last meeting focused on a suprising selection of Chardonnay, a berry filled Rosé and two revealing reds.
No other winery in California, or perhaps one might say the USA, is more identified with the chardonnay grape than Wente Vineyards. Their story goes back to 1883 when the family purchased their first 47 acres in the Livermore Valley and began researching and developing the vines best suited to their vineyard conditions. These selections became know as the ‘Wente Clones’ and are the ‘parents’ of most of California’s chardonnay vines today.
Wente Vineyards currently produces four different bottlings of America’s favorite white variety and we had the opportunity to sample three of them and learn why 5 generations of winemakers have earned this venerated winery the title of ‘First Family of Chardonnay’.
2013 Wente Morning Mist Chardonnay (SRP $15) is named for the famous fog that rolls into the Livermore Valley each morning. Later in the day it gives way to the warm rays of the California sun producing balanced fruit with refreshing acidity. Tropical nuances of mango and pineapple dominate with touches of lemon drop and whiffs of light oak and toast. The declared pairing; a pair of pizzas from local Temecula restaurant the Goat and Vine, both of which surprised in their complement. The red onions on the goat cheese, garlic and tomato pizza really showed-off their roasted sweetness as did the savory spice of the fennel sausage featured on the ‘Butcher Shop’ pie.
2014 Wente ‘Eric’s Chardonnay’ (SRP $28) Eric is the Winemaker and the grapes for this refreshing, un-oaked wine are hand selected from Wente’s Livermore Valley Estate. Perfect for ‘appero time’, it’s light and softly fragrant with soft gold apple and Asian pear with nectarine and lemon zest on the finish. Try pairing with a complimentary appetizer – puff pastry squares topped with a fruity compote comprised of pears and kumquats, sweet red onion, creamy Havarti cheese and toasty almonds
Lake County is one of California’s more northerly American Viticultural Areas (AVA) and is known for it’s cooler, fresher climate, higher elevations and well-ripened fruit. Shannon Ridge is located at the southern end of Clear Lake, a body of water that brings a moderating effect to the vineyards – vineyards which are sustainably farmed using the Ovis Cycle and a herd of over 1000 sheep. These industrious creatures work in harmony with the vineyard, consuming foliage, clearing fire hazard areas surrounding the vines and eliminate the need for costly fuel-powered tractors, herbicides and chemical fertilizers.
2013 Shannon Ridge Chardonnay (SRP $12) is a great example of the cooler climate influence – vibrant acidity keeps the Anjou pear, crunchy apple and citrus characteristics lively and clean while just a touch of oak aging lends finesse and vanilla, butterscotch tones. An equally crisp Spinach Salad adorned with ripe red strawberries, red onion and candied pecans paired well, enhancing the ripe red fruit of the raspberry vinaigrette.
Two red wines awaited, both from our friends at Shannon Ridge:
2012 Shannon Ridge Petite Sirah (SRP $22.99) offered up deep, dark and black fruit, quite contrary to the ‘Petite’ in the variety’s name! Blackberries, dried currant, chocolate, espresso roast coffee beans and mouth filling tannins held up well with the designed pairing – spicy and earthy Carne Asada, but the wine also met its match with the tapenade and both pizza choices. Could have sipped this wine for the rest of the evening, but it was time to open our last bottle.
2011 Shannon Ridge Terre Vermielle Barbara (SRP $30) With 18 months in a combination of French and American oak, this Barbara showed an ‘Old World’ style that emphasised the earthy, licorice, dried herb and peppery side of the variety, while the classic red cherry fruit was somewhat subdued. Paired with a bite of the previously mentioned spinach and strawberry salad the berry notes of the wine were more pronounced but it really shone with the dark, deep cocoa richness of the decidedly decadent brownies.
As the evening drew to a close, we all knew the time had come to review our notes and cast our votes. While wine is definitely a ‘personal preference’ sport, we try to put our minds into judging mode, looking at the typicity, craftsmanship and character of the wines. Three categories were declared:
2012 Wente Morning Fog Chardonnay: definitive style Chardonnay with a drinkable balance of fruit and oak. Plays well with a variety of food choices or on its own. Great value.
2014 Villicana Rosé and Black Olive Tepenade: classic pairings are classic for a reason! Think bistro, South of France.
2012 Shannon Ridge Petite Sirah: with it’s easy to drink style, food friendly attitude and varietal typicity, this wine was an all around winner and unanimous choice. Plus, at this price, you could easily bring 2 bottles to any dinner party!
And so ended another Wine Council evening, proving once again that wine tastes better with good food and even better companions. Santé.
Hilarie Larson is a wine writer, and educator, who loves nothing more than traveling to vineyard and food destinations. Join her as she shares some of her experiences on the wine roads.