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A view of Parma, the salumi capital of Italy, in the Emilia-Romagna region

So it’s been a few weeks since I’ve returned from Emilia-Romagna and I owe you all a blog post. I know… I’m the worst.  Emilia-Romagna is, in many ways, a largely undiscovered region of Italy that is also really the country’s culinary heart and soul.

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A classic plate of salumi with salami, culatello, and Prosciutto di Parma

This region of Italy lies north of the “butter line” where it’s too cold to cultivate olives – so the cooking fat of choice is butter. This, my friends, is my kind of Italy.

Besides being home to such famous Italian goods as Parmiggiano-Regiano, Prosciutto di Parma, and Aceto Balsamico, the region is also renowned for its production of salumi and, especially, a delightful cured meat called Culatello.  What makes all of this even more exciting, perhaps, is that besides the first three products on that list, none of it is allowed into the U.S. (at least not for another 2 years-ish) so gorging on salumi while in the region is not only acceptable, but necessary.

But, ok, this is a wine blog. So while the fecundity of the region makes it an amazing culinary capitol of an entire country already obsessed with food, that same fertile soil doesn’t do much for viticulture.

The best wines of the world are cultivated in places relatively hostile to anything other than grape vines, which, masochists that they are, thrive in soils and conditions that require a bit of a struggle. As you might imagine, fertile and fecund Emilia-Romagna is not a region much renowned for its wine.

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A view of the Langhirano Valley in Emilia-Romagna

The best-known wine of the region is definitely the oft-derided Lambrusco – a lightly sparkling and barely alcoholic red wine.  The main white grape of the region is Malvasia where it generally manifests in a not-offensive yet not very exciting wine that can come sparkling, flat, dry, or semi-dry. It’s alright but not amazing.

Lambrusco, however, is a different story. Lambrusco has had a bad reputation in the states since commercial producers introduced it as an insipid and sickly sweet sparkling red wine in the 1970’s during the age of White Zinfandel. However, real Lambrusco has about as much in common with that horrid iteration as White Zinfandel does to proper Zinfandel.

Real Lambrusco is bone-dry with flavors of fresh fruits, earth, minerals, and roses. It’s super low in alcohol (usually about 11% ABV) and is imbibed across the Emilia-Romagna region in a manner similar to the way we Americans drink soda. It’s a refreshing afternoon quaff, something to sip with lunch, and it pairs impeccably with the region’s rich cheeses and salumi.

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My absolute favorite go-to Lambrusco

As soon as I knew I was heading to Emilia-Romagana, I got in touch with James Koch. Koch imports my absolute favorite Lambrusco (Pronto) through his company, JK Imports, and is single-handedly responsible for importing and growing awareness of real Lambrusco in the states. I couldn’t head to the land of Lambrusco without tasting the good stuff and, true to form, James set me up with a tasting with an amazing producer called Cinque Campi.

Cinque Campi is a small family run winery that has a history of being passed from father to son for more than 200 years. Nick is the current proprietor and the first to make wine not solely intended for family consumption. Besides having a focus on biodynamic winemaking, Nick has also made efforts to reintroduce indigenous vines that had become all but extinct and, when it comes to particular varieties, may be the only winemaker using them in the entire world.

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a view of the vineyards at Cinque Campe

Nick was gracious enough to take us on a full tour through his vineyards, plucking grapes into our mouths along the way, explaining his growing techniques and harvesting practices. He also showed us the 16th century stone cellar where he ages his wines in Piedmont-style Slovenian oak barriques and hand riddles his sparkling wines. The cellar is located under his house, where, on the day we arrived, he was casually boiling grape must that would, in 12 years, become his family’s own Aceto Balsamico. NBD.

After we had to seek shelter from marble-sized raindrops, we began a tasting of Nick’s truly special wines. Fearing the rain had come too late in the season and might damage his crop, Nick ensured us that the rain was welcome for his Grasparossa vines, which, of the three varieties he uses to make Lambrusco, are the last to be harvested and need a big rain like the one falling outside.

We started our tasting with a 2012 white wine called La Bora Lunga made entirely of Spergola, a native variety of Emilia-Romagna that, for a long time, was confused with Sauvignon Blanc, but which, is in fact, very much its own grape pretty much exclusively grown in the region.  The wine was a rich golden color with a nose of ripe melons that gave way to a rich-tasting yet medium bodied white wine that finished with a minerally lick of damp earth. It was very much unlike anything I’d ever had before and made me excited to taste what came next.

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the family’s aceto balsamico barrels

Next, we tried a sparkling white wine called L’Artiglio from 2010 that was also made from Spergola that had spent three years sur-lie. The nose was all honey and figs while the wine was full-bodied yet clean with notes of sage, grapefruit, and a minerally finish that called to mind the best Champagne. It was complex and delicious.

We followed that up with another sparkling white called Terbianc that went through secondary fermentation in-bottle, and was made from a variation of the usually blah-Trebbiano grape called Trebbiano Modenese.  The grapes came from a vineyard planted with 120-year old vines. The skins stayed in contact with the juice all through the first fermentation, giving the wine a rich yellow almost orangey color. The wine had a slight appley nose but opened into a lightly bitter sparkling wine with bracing acidity and flavors of grapefruit and marmalade.  It pairs splendidly, Nick promised, with the region’s classic dish of Tortelli stuffed with Ricotta and herbs and drenched in butter. I believed him.

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the hand-riddling going on in the 16th century cellar of Cinque Campe

Finally we made it to the good stuff – the realest of the real Lambruscos I’ve ever tasted.  We opened up with the 2011 Rio degli Sgoccioli, a Lambrusco that, according to Nick, was made in the truly ancient style. This was the most elegant Lambrusco I’ve ever tried. There was nothing rustic about this wine – it was all finesse with a beautiful cranberry color that, if not for the bubbles, could have been mistaken for a Beaujolais. It was all roses, raspberries, and a touch of yeast, with a delicate body and a tang of minerality on the finish that made me crave another (and another and another) sip.

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One of the labels with a drawing from Nick’s 2-year old son

Lulled into the kind of great-wine-induced trance that made me feel like I could die any moment and do so happily, Nick wanted us to try one last wine – his classic 2011 CinqueCampe Rosso that was the most traditional Lambrusco they made. The wine comes wrapped in a label decorated with a drawing by Nick’s 2-year old son – yet another endearingly charming detail. This was the kind of Lambrusco I’d been looking for the whole trip with notes of blackberries, licorice, and a touch of bitterness on the finish. This Lambrusco was made up of 85% Grasparossa, 10% Malbo Gentile to give the wine body and 5% Marzemino to contribute some elegance.

Thrilled with how thrilled we were, Nick ran down to his cellar and pulled a bottle of the 2012 vintage of this same wine – not even labeled yet! We must, he insisted, try this, too. We didn’t put up much of a fight. The 2012 vintage was entirely different – with more fruit than the 2011 with notes of strawberries that were reminiscent of Peidmont’s Grignolino and lighter, with even more minerality.

Just to make sure we all had a good nap on the way back to Parma, Nick also brought out a bottle of his desert wine called Tribülê from the 2010 vintage and it was incredible. Too incredible to write down tasting notes, apparently, but I came home with a bottle of it in my suitcase so… enough said.

Leaving Cinque Campi was hard to do, but thanks to James Koch, who imports the wines into the states, I can always pick up a bottle stateside, too.  The whole day with Nick at Cinque Campi was fascinating and delicious – just like his wines. Seeing this kind of truly artisinal (none of the wines has a production that exceeds 500 bottles) and family-run winery was a really special experience and reaffirmed all my feelings about supporting smaller producers who make wine with passion, history, and so much soul.

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the aftermath of our epic tasting

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It’s been over a year since I’ve taken the time to write about the 20-something wine palate. Last I checked in, Millenials were mad for Malbec – but that was a while ago and, while I’m sure there are still plenty of 20-somethings throwing back these easy-drinkers from Argentina, there’s plenty more to catch everyone up on.

It’s only taken a year of writing this little wine blog but my friends have finally started to come around to being introduced to different wines that I bring around. And to actually go into wine stores on their own, ask questions, and spend a little money on a wine that they might actually enjoy. The biggest crowd pleaser? Without a doubt, Barbera.

Barbera is a grape indigenous to Piedmont in Northwestern Italy and it makes a wine that is notable for its big juicy fruit, high acidity, and low tannin. Unlike Malbecs from Argentina, which are also incredibly fruit forward, Barberas tend to show flavors of cherries and red plums and, because of the high acid, they are brighter and much more food-friendly. I have a theory that given these wines’ flavor profiles, easy drinkability, and food friendliness, they would easily be the next Malbec if not for their higher price tag. Wine directors around the city of New York have taken note, too, and begun to offer them widely and broadly on wine lists across the city as an affordable and accessible by-the-glass option. For the 20-something who is starting to get comfortable with their palate, maybe into a something a little heavier than their usual Pinot Noir but a little sick of rich chocolatey Malbec, Barbera is a brilliant choice.

Barbera is traditionally a wine of Piedmonte, but there are some truly wonderful examples coming out of Santa Barbara and also Amador County at the foot of the Sierra Foothills in California. Above, I’ve included my two clear favorites from this burgeoning region.

For the more adventurous 20-something wine drinker, I’ve found that another big hit is the Austrian grape, Blaufrankisch. Austrian wines, in general, have seen a pretty significant surge in popularity over the last year – with Zweigelt, Blaufrankisch, and even St. Laurent starting to become a less rare sighting on wine lists and retail shelves. For the 20-something wine drinker who just doesn’t have a taste for Pinot Noir, Blaufrankisch is a great option – it’s light, has really bright acidity, and berry fruits like raspberries, blueberries, and a sophisticated hit of black pepper that makes the nose on this wine instantly recognizable. With just a touch of tannin, this is a good gateway wine into understanding the structure and complexity that tannin can bring to a wine – there’s no way that the average 20-something wine drinker is going to ever appreciate tannin if they’re smacked in the face with it. It has to be a gradual introduction and one that gets more aggressive over time, as the palate warms up to it. Blaufrankisch is another wine that my friends enjoyed so much that it drove them to their local wine shops in search of it.

As far as heavier reds go, I think that a lot of 20-somethings who have the money to spend are big into the reds from Chateneuf du Pape. The price of these spicy, earthy, and moderately tannic wines have fallen as the market has been flooded with more affordable bottles, and millenials are drawn to this very classic French wine. However, for those who have a taste for bigger reds that can’t quite afford to throw down $20 every time they want a bottle of wine, the reds of the Languedoc are a great place to go. Specifically, the red wines of Corbieres are popular and, generally, easy sellers. These are reds that have some of the spice, aggressive fruit, and earthiness that Chateneuf offers, but with softer tannins and a funkier character that is strangely appealing. The price tags on these wines are generally a little gentler on the wallet, too, with good bottles usually retailing for about $12/bottle.

In Corbieres, the main grape is Carignan, which is often supplemented with Syrah and Grenache. Carignan is the main culprit behing the funky character that sets the region’s reds apart. Meanwhile, in Chateuneuf du Pape, Grenache is king.

So, what about the whites you ask? Besides the Moscato craze sweeping the marketplace, there are plenty of other wines that are poised to be a big hit with the 20-something wine-drinking crowd. To start, I think that Rieslings are making a big impression on the 20-something wine drinker – especially with the shift towards the bone-dry style. If there’s one thing that Millienals never want to be, it’s uncool. And sweet Rieslings? They are the epitome of uncool. But dry Rieslings are delicious and 20-somethings are learning this slowly but definitely.

In the spirit of Riesling’s growing popularity in regions across the world, I’ve included here a sample from The Finger Lakes, Alsace, Washington, and the Mosel Region of Germany…all have distinct characteristics that speak to that all-elusive idea of terroir

I also think that Greek Whites are making some decent headway. Assyrtiko, once obscure, is slowly becoming a go-to white wine on many wine lists around the city, and I’ve had some other Greek whites that have just blown me away. These are wines to watch out for. Again, like with the dry Rieslings, these are usually whites with racy – if not downright aggressive – acidity that are crisp and clean, but offer nice fruit and some interesting flavors. Oak, I think, has become a faux-pas as far as 20-somethigns are concerned – an oaky white wine is too much something their mothers would drink and, thus, far too uncool.

The wine on the far left, the Alpha Estate Malgouzia, isn’t actually an Assyrtiko, but it is a wine I fell in love with recently. It has a vaguely minty marshmallow flavor and texture that make it endlessly intriguing from the first sip to the last. Coupled with a bracing acidity, it’s a wine that continues to pique my curiosity weeks after I’ve tried it.

Lastly, as far as whites go, I think that Sicilian whites are piggybacking on the huge surge in popularity of Sicilian reds, and we may start to see more of them. Just like with Assyrtiko and Riesling, Sicilian whites have zingy acidity and unusual flavors that range from orange blossom to stark minerality. They’re cool and weird and so far from what our parents ever liked that I think they’re bound to become strangely popular for such an obscure wine.

I think the biggest insight we can glean into the shifting trends in what 20-somethings are drinking is that younger wine drinkers like wines that have a “cool factor” – whether the grape or the place is a little obscure, a taste for high acidity, and, obviously, the price. If the average bottle is above $15, you can forget about it – you’re not going anywhere fast with this recession-battered crowd. I think, too, that, wines in general made with less oak and a lighter touch are becoming increasingly popular.  I think that two wines poised to make a big impression in the next year are Rioja – those that are made in a more traditional old-world style with restrained oak and less bombastic fruit, and Beaujolais – a wine I love dearly for its subtlety, delicacy, and lightness. We’ll come back around to those two, later. In the meantime, go drink what the cool kids are drinking and thank me later.

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Ya know, Spanish wine is a weird thing. Spain, as a nation, has more acreage devoted to wine production than any other country at 2.9 million acres. For some perspective, California only has a little more than 500,000 acres devoted to wine production and France, the world’s largest producer, squeezes its vast quantity of wine out of just under 2 million acres. And yet, while Spain has more land devoted to winemaking than anyone else, it is only the 3rd largest producer after France and Italy (first and second respectively).

I would also argue that we Americans tend to know less about Spanish wine than we do about other wines from abroad. Or at least that’s how I feel. Want me to tell you what grapes are grown in the Loire Valley versus the Cotes du Rhone? No problem… the answer rolls off my tongue, greased with confidence. Want me to tell you the difference between the wines of Piedmont and those grown in Alto Adige? Psh, please – what do I look like to you? Some sort of amateur?

Alright, tough guy – what are the differences between the grapes used in Ribera del Duero and Rioja? Ermm…umm….uh…I…. what? You know what the scariest part of that question is? It’s a trick question – the grapes are the same. Both regions use Tempranillo! I hear ya, you’re like, wait – what? Isn’t that what makes European wine so confusing? Because every region of every country uses different weird grapes that I don’t know how to pronounce properly?

That’s kind of the beauty of Spanish wine– in many ways it’s actually significantly less complicated than French or Italian wine. For example, while Spain does have its fair share of weird indigenous grapes and there are certain regions that use specific grapes rarely used anywhere else (like Mencia, only used in Galicia), there’s also a lot of continuity across wine regions in Spain that can offer a brilliant lesson in the effects of climate, geology, and geography on winemaking.

When it comes to Spanish red wine, bets are that whatever you’re drinking is comprised of Tempranillo, Garnacha, or a blend of the two. That’s a pretty wild generalization, but it’s also a good place to start. I owe it to Spain to do a full examination of all her wondrous wine regions, and to do it in the same fashion and with the same attention I’ve given to her sisters, France and Italy. But I’m not going to do it today. Because today, what I really want to talk about is Ribera del Duero.

A closeup of the Castille y Leon Wine Region of Spain

A couple months ago, I was invited to a tasting of the wines of Ribera del Duero and I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I had no clue what these wines were all about, but being the giant nerd that I am, I did my homework and a little research. I learned that Ribera del Duero was a wine-producing region located in the Castilla y Leon region. I also realized that the closest thing I’d tasted to a wine from Ribera del Duero were the wines of Toro – pretty much Ribera’s next-door neighbor. I also realized, quickly, that both Ribera del Duero and Toro produce wines from Tempranillo (though, in Toro they like to call it Tinta de Toro).

The famous castle of Castille y Leon

And then I was like, oh, hey! Tempranillo! I know that grape – that’s the stuff that’s in Rioja! Sweet, I got this. So Iwalked into the tasting expecting to experience the ball-busting powerhouse wines I associated with Toro and the flavors of chocolate, oak, and dark fruit that I associated with Rioja.

Boy, oh, boy was I wrong. Dead wrong. Like, leather pants in August wrong. I hardly even know where to start, so I guess I’ll start with the Vega Sicilia, one of the most highly-regarded and revered wineries in the world. It seemed a little unfair that my introduction to the wines of Ribera del Duero would be through the region’s and, indeed probably the country of Spain’s, most prized wine. I felt poised for disappointment because how on earth could this possibly be a fair entry to the wines of the region? It would have been like sipping a LaTour or Mouton Rothschild by way of introduction to Bordeaux. It’s just simply not done.

But I did it. And I was dumbfounded. As I sat and swirled my glass of this ridiculously expensive wine, expecting the heady masculine scent I associated with Rioja and Toro, I was absolutely disoriented by the scents of eucalyptus and roses that wafted up instead. What the hell was going on here? I sipped. The wine was smooth as velvet with soft firm tannins, an ethereal light body and an acidity that kept the whole thing aloft until it had slid, like silk, down my throat. That was the Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2006 –  the least prestigious of Vega Sicilia’s wines, being the one they produced every year. We still had the Vega Sicilia Unico Grand Reserva 2000 to go – a rare wine made only in the best vintages and in extremely limited amounts. This time the nose was all baked cherries with floral notes and some liquorice hovering around the edge along with a whiff of leather. This one had a little more weight to it, anchored by dusty tannins but still held aloft by an astringent herbal quality that kept it unbearably fresh. It wasn’t until you swallowed this velvety conconction that a faint streak of chocolate and earth rushed into your mouth. It was incredible. And so light.

Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2006 on the left, Vega Sicilia Unico Grand Reserva 2000 on the right

I floated out of the seminar and into the elevator to be whisked down into the main tasting room. Surely, I thought, this was all some sort of gross misunderstanding. I must have missed something – these wines were so elegant, so fresh, so pretty! They were nothing like the rich, kick-you-around wines I was expecting from Toro or the warm, comforting give-you-a-hug wines of Rioja…there was more to this than I thought. And so I marched on.

The wines of Ribera del Duero have another thing in common with the wines of Rioja (besides the use of Tempranillo) in that they employ the same classification system whereby they are categorized according to the amount of time they’ve spent in oak:

Cosecha or Joven: These wines usually do not see any oak.  “Joven Roble” and “Joven Barrica” are aged for only three to six months in oak and released soon after harvest. As a result, they are fruity, vibrant, and meant to be consumed young.

Crianza: Aged two  years with a minimum of one year in oak barrels. These wines usually have well-balanced tannins with a medium-to-full body.

 Reserva: Aged three years, with a minimum one one year in oak barrels. After at least one year in oak barrels, Reserva wines are bottle-aged in winery cellars, producing wines that are ready to drink once they are released – they are more intense, richer, and have a longer finish.

Gran Riserva: Gran Riservas are wines that are only produced in the very best vintages. They are aged fro a minimum of five years, with a minimum of two years in oak barrels, followed by additional bottle aging. These are complex, structured, balanced, and the biggest examples of Ribera wines.

The most amazing aspect of these wines though, especially for any drinker familiar with the wines of Rioja, is how absolutely and terrifically different they are. Even though these wines are made from the same grape in much the same manner, they couldn’t be more different.

vineyards in Ribera del Duero

The take away I had from this whole experience was that the wines of Ribera del Duero are incredibly fresh and elegant. Scattered among my tasting notes are phrases like “really light”, “lovely and floral”, “raspberries and violets”, “baked blueberries and cinnamon!” “so fresh”, and “herbal, stony, and juicy”.

One of the reasons that the wines of Ribera del Duero manifest the Tempranillo grape so differently is the region’s geography. Most of the vineyards of Ribera are planted between 2,500 and 2,800 feet above sea level with some vineyards planted even higher. The region’s elevation contributes to wildly fluxuating daytime/nighttime temperatures during the growing season that facilitate healthy ripening of the grapes by day and promote balanced acidity and aromatic complexity at night. The region is also fairly dry, contributing to consistent ripening and soil conditions that are near-perfect with limestone and chalk that help to give the wines structure. But mostly, it’s the region’s elevation that contributes to the unbelievably fresh character of these wines.

That said, while I can surely appreciate a wine that’s gonna kick me around a little bit (see: my love affair with Priorat) – I absolutely fell in love with the younger wines of Ribera del Duero because they were so pretty and bright and fresh. That’s not to say I didn’t like the Riservas and Grand Riservas I tasted – they are more complex, more elegant, and more serious grown-up wines. But, for me, the region’s real charms were on full display in the flirty and vivacious younger wines –the Jovens and the Crianzas. 

This time of year is especially perfect for these young wines of the Ribera del Duero. Here in New York, Spring has unfurled her flowers and tree branches and now turned a cold shoulder on the city – turning the sky gray and the air chilly again. And for this, the wines of Ribera del Duero – floral and pretty, but also substantial, are perfect. Take a look at some of my favorites below and, oh, did I mention that they’re also wildly affordable with a median price that lands somewhere between $10-$15/bottle? Yeah. You’re welcome.


D.O.5 Hispanobodegas, S.L.U 2010 Vina Gormaz: 
This joven is made from very old vines that lend a complexity and concentration to the wine that is pretty unreal. Fresh raspberries on the nose lead to a wine that has a tightly wound structure that carries the aromatics from the nose through to the palate.

Hacienda Ernestina Solano Roble 2010: This joven is light, fresh and has an absolutely gorgeous nose of flowers and fresh fruit.

Pagos de Valcerracin 2008: This Crianza was so different on the nose with notes of earth, tar and even a whiff  of petrol that made me think of Reisling. On the palate, however, the wine exploded into something floral with a sweet vanilla-laced flavor and sun-ripened blackberries.Blew me away!

Pasquera 2009 Tinto Pasquera: Baked strawberries on the nose and a scent of canned cranberry sauce. It’s juicy and really drinkable.

Bodegas y Vinedos Neo 2009 Sentido Cosecha: An unbelievable nose of baked blueberries and cinnamon leads to a wine that is light and spicy with amazing balance.

Bodegas Vizcarra 2008 Celia Crianza: More of that beautiful blueberries-and-violets scent on the nose that just makes your mouth water. It smells like berry pie and fresh flowers and on the palate is light and silky.

Carmelo Rodero 2005 Valtarrena: A single vineyard Reserva that was soft, spicy, sweet and incredibly fresh.

Adarezo 100% Unoaked Vina Villano: This wine was so refreshing it was like drinking juice – blueberries and raspberries jumped out of the glass, mingling with floral perfume. On the palate it had sparkling juicy acidity and tight tannins to hold it all up. Even, at the end, a faint trace of watermelon…just lovely.

Hijos de Antonio Barcelo 2007 Vina Mayor Crianza: Really light and floral with a lovely plummy character – absolutely delicious. Right next door to Vega Sicilia’s vineyards so the quality is pretty amazing.

 

 

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One of the more embarrassing episodes of my life involves an infatuation with musical theater. And so, when I walked out of my apartment the other day to find the whole city suddenly in bloom, I couldn’t help but to think of the song below:

Note, of course, that the song is all about JUNE busting out all over because, well, sadly, there’s usually not too much to sing and dance about til then.

New Yorkers love to gripe that Spring is not a season that affords much celebration in the city. Too often, she is much too coy a lover – getting all of our hopes up with a string of beautiful days, warm and sunny, and then taking it all away without warning and leaving us shivering in our light jackets against a cruelly chilly wind and cloud-darkened sky.

Personally, I have vivid memories of railing against Spring’s maliciciously late appearance last year – of wandering past barely budded branches in April and feeling cheated by the season’s pathetic showing of scrawny daffodils and bone-chilling nights.

So, this year, when Spring, in her star turn as seductress, whirled into the city early, sending trees into ecstatic blooms, coaxing tulips out of the ground with wanton promises, and inciting a riot of hyacinths, I couldn’t help but wonder what she was up to.

And then I got over it. Because, heck, we’ve got a real, true, swear-to-goodness Spring in the city this year, and that’s just swell.

This sudden and unexpected turn in the seasons also got me to thinking about just how important the seasons are in wine making.

Just a couple months ago, I took a trip to the Finger Lakes of upstate New York, a place where the seasons and its inevitable variations have a tremendous impact on the region’s wines.

“A lot of people say that the terroir up here is the weather and that defines our vintage more so than in many regions that may have a climate that is fairly stable,” said Peter Becraft, an assistant winemaker at Anthony Road Wine Company (and one of my favorite producers in the region).  “On the east coast you’re dealing with constantly changing weather pattern – some years it is much colder and some year it’s much warmer, some years we get more rain than we need and some years we don’t have enough!”

The view from the Chardonnay Vineyard at Dr. Frank's

In fact, at the very first lunch we sat down to on our whirlwind trip through the region, Tricia Renshaw, a winemaker at Fox Run Vineyards, told us a horror story about waiting a few days too long to harvest the season’s Gewurztraminer and losing the whole crop to bad weather.

The Finger Lakes is quietly but steadily gaining recognition as one of the best wine-producing regions in the U.S., a reputation that is staked largely on the region’s wonderful dry Rieslings.

The region has a long and storied past in wine making – but one that mostly involves producing cheap bulk wine or sweet wines from native North American grape varieties called Vinifera Labrusca (grapes like Concord, Niagara, Catawba, and Delaware). Its worth noting, too, that those sweet wines are still doing just fine, thank you, in the region and, in many cases,  are the work horse wines that pay the bills and allow many of the region’s winemakers to produce their more serious wines.

The Chardonnay Vineyards at Dr. Frank's

It wasn’t until the 1960’s, that an ambitious Ukranian named Dr. Konstantin Frank introduced European varieties to the region and incited a “Vinifera Revolution” that would totally change the direction of wine production in the region.

Ok, you’re thinking, So they’ve been at this since the 1960’s and I still haven’t heard of, let alone tried, a wine from the Finger Lakes? Doesn’t that mean the region had, like, a ten year start on California’s serious wine making efforts? So why have I gotten sloshed on Napa Chardonnay before I’ve even had a sip of Finger Lake Riesling?

And this, dear reader, is an excellent question. Let’s start by addressing the fact that there is just much much more land in California that is amenable to successful viticulture.

In the Finger Lakes, vineyards can only be successfully cultivated on a very small portion of land – the hills directly above the region’s namesake deep lakes. Those lakes are essential to grape production in the region because they are very large and extremely deep. In fact, one of those lakes, Seneca Lake, is so deep that the US Navy tests its submarines inside of it. True story. The depth of those lakes is important because it makes it impossible for the lakes to freeze over in winter and causes them to act as natural weather moderators – keeping the immediately surrounding hillsides warm enough through the region’s harsh winters for vines to stay alive, and cool enough in the summer time to keep them from getting fried.

The view from Lamoreaux Landing

Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, has said it very eloquently indeed.

” Our geography in New York State really limits what we can do,” Trezise told me. “California is so much larger as a state and has so much more acreage within the state that is conducive to growing grapes than we do here in New York […] we’re never going to be a major quantity player in the world.”

In essence,  there’s just not much wine from the Finger Lakes to go around. And because the region’s output and quality is so dependent on the weather, one bad vintage can mean even less wine than the year before or after.

However, it’s important to note that quality is not one of the reasons you’ve never tried a wine from the Finger Lakes. Ask me why you haven’t tried a wine from Mississippi, Kentucky, or Wisconsin and I’m gonna tell you it’s because they’re not very good. Not so, my friends, with the Finger Lakes. Perhaps a few years or a decade ago, this could have been a valid argument but, these days, the Finger Lakes is producing some top quality wines, indeed.

What do I mean by top quality in relation to the wide world of wine?

“We see the opportunity to position The Finger Lakes as North America’s preeminent cold climate region,” said Bob Madill, Chair of the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance. “In terms of quality, we truly believe that we can say that we are producing some of the great Riesling of the world -right there along with Alcace [France] and even Mosel [Germany].”

Vineyards at Fox Run Vineyards

I’m the first to admit I’m nothing close to any kind of aficionado on the subject of Riesling. Prior to tasting my way through the Finger Lakes’ offerings, I usually scrunched up my nose and took a pass on the wine – thinking of it mostly as a sweetish wine that I had no taste for. But, what I tasted in the Finger Lakes, for the most part, impressed me. These were some tasty tasty wines.

The winemakers in the region are proud of what they’re doing, too. They believe that there is a true regional style that is emerging and I, for one, can agree. There’s a lot of minerality in these Rieslings that makes them interesting and particularly enjoyable. There’s also razor-sharp acidity (that, in fact, after three days of imbibing caused actual physical pain to my palate), gorgeous perfume, and breathtaking balance.

Obviously, Riesling isn’t the only grape being grown in the region – winemakers are also using Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, and Gruner Veltliner on the white side. As for the reds, many in the wine world are eager to see what the region does with Pinot Noir and winemakers are also playing with Cabernet Franc, Blaufrankisch (known as Lemberger in the region), Gamay (the grape of Beaujolais) and Merlot. There are also some great sparkling wines coming out of the region. The sparklers would be my recommendation after the Rieslings.

So, in short, if you can get your hands on some Finger Lakes Riesling to celebrate this glorious Spring, go for it. They’re lovely  – and their effusive aromatics are often of a floral nature that makes them a perfect pairing for the season.

As for the reds, in this humble wine blogger’s opinion there’s still some work to be done. Of course, I understand that this is never going to be a region to turn to for a big bold red wine – the style is leaner, brighter, and fresher than that of, say, California. But, personally, I found most (and not all – there are some red recommendations below!) of the red wines I tasted green, twiggy, and tannic. However, I will say that there is some serious promise in the regional blend of Blaufrankisch and Cab. Franc – these, I think are the best bet for the region’s reds – at least for now.

I’ve rounded up my 19 top wines from my Finger Lakes trip below. I’ve thrown in a couple of dessert and ice wines, too, because after this trip, I’m just smitten (if you haven’t already, check out the guest post I wrote for Mutineer Magazine’s blog on the subject!). Now get away from the computer screen and go dance around outside – Spring is busting out all over!

19 Finger Lakes Wines of Note

Pleasant Valley Wine “Millennium” Sparkling Wine – Warm biscuity nose with a hint of cider. Light and appley with a touch of vanilla at the end.

Tierce Dry Riesling 2008 – A toasty nose of roasted nuts, marshmallow, and a whiff of ripe pear – on the palate, there is sparkling acidity, and flavors of ripe tropical fruits that are reminiscent of white gummy bears.

Wagner Vineyards Semi-Dry Riesling 2009 – Softer nose of unripe strawberries with a touch of funk around the edge. Still, however, the wine is very juicy and more fruit on the palate than the nose. Racy acidity.

Anthony Road 2009 Riesling – Tar, pear, and ripe bananas on the nose. Super juicy with nice soft but strong acid, lychee, tropical flavors, this is Riesling is soft, warm and delicious.

Hosmer Riesling 2010 -Lots of fruit on the nose, smells sweet – almost like baked fruits. Luscious and juicy

Eagle Crest Vineyards semi-dry Riesling 2010 – A gorgeous perfume that mingles floral scents with ripe peaches and green mango. Lean fruit on the palate with a brisk minerally finish, brisk acidity.

Dr. Frank’s Rkatsiteli2009 – The nose is musky and melony with a touch of bubblegum. This is a wine made from an obscure grape that is juicy, long, full-bodied, and soft but still very brisk. Floral on the palate, too.

Dr. Frank’s 2010 Semi-Dry Riesling– Tropical fruit on the nose with a hint of peach. Sweet and bright.

Treleaven Chardonnay 2010 – Toasty oak, roasted almonds, and petrol. Rich and buttery with notes of toasty oak and hazelnuts. Nice and full.

Glenora Pinot Blanc 2011– Green apples, peaches, and grass on the nose. A soft and fleshy wine with zingy acidity and flavors of ripe pears.

Wagner Vineyards Semi-Dry Gewürtztraminer 2010 – Floral nose of roses and peonies and some lychee with a whiff of nutmeg. The luscious perfume carries through to the palate with a pleasantly oily texture.  The weight of the sugar in the wine is completely balanced by the acid – making this an old-world style Gewurz with a gorgeous nose that actually translates from the nose to the palate.

Lamoreaux Landing ’76 West 2007  – Cocoa and leather on the nose, nice acid, juicy red fruit, soft tannin and a rush of vanilla on the finish.

Lakewood Lemberger 2009 – Smokey on the nose, with classic notes of black pepper, strawberries, and a slight gamey quality that is intriguing. Tingling acidity, warm, spicy with notes of currents. Fuller to mid palate with chewy rather astringent tannin.

Anthony Road Lemberger/Cabernet Franc Blend 2010 – Floral nose complimented by the scent of baked blueberries. Slight sweet vanilla on the palate, candied violets, high acidity, and soft tannin.

Standing Stone Vineyards Chardonnay Ice Wine 2008 – Smells like a caramel apple. Soft, lush, and juicy.

Martini Reinhardt 2008 Trockenbaren – On the nose, the scent of ripe pink ladies, mango, frangipani all mingle together to make an intoxicating perfume that smells a little bit like Hawaii. Cocoa butter and sunscreen. Bright, juicy, rich, and warm.

Sheldrake Point Riesling Ice Wine 2008 – Baked apricots, fresh almonds on the nose brings to mind the smell of a Danish. On the palate, it’s really bright, juicy with flavors of white peaches, and even a hint of peach gummy candies. Sweet without being cloying at all.

Lakewood Vineyards 2010 Glaciovinum – This super affordable desert wine is made with a grape called Delaware that some claim is native to North America and others argue is the result of some sexy time between European and native varieties. Either way, Delaware yields some delicious desert wine – I likened the nose to cherry Jolly Ranchers but fancier reviewers call it “sweet tangerine.” Bright, juicy, and just bursting with sweet exotic flavor, this desert wine is quaffable delight.

Treleaven Eis Wine 2008 Late Harvest Riesling – Peaches, marmalade, and a streak of caramel make up the nose of this luscious iced wine. The late harvest grapes are frozen after they’ve been picked, which excludes it from being a true ice wine, but its no less delectable. Rich and juicy, this dessert wine has stunning acidity and perfect balance.

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       I know what you’re thinking. You’re like, “Jeez, Caroline, can’t you use the one most obvious holiday as an excuse to talk about something other than wine?” And I hear ya, I do. I could totally use St. Patrick’s Day as an excuse to talk about craft beers or local whiskeys made from micro-distilleries just a subway ride away. But then I’d be just like everyone else, wouldn’t I?

            So instead, I’m going to use the holiday as a good reason to talk about the wines of “Green Spain.” “Uugghh. Spain? On St. Patrick’s Day. Really???” Yep. Really. For a couple reasons.

A beauty shot of - nope! Not Ireland! Green Spain! Image used under Creative Commons via talliskeeton (Flickr)

The first is that this region of northern Spain is referred to as Green Spain because the area’s combination of ocean influences and rain contribute to lush growth that is reminiscent of Great Britain, Normandy, and – you guessed it – Ireland! Also, a nifty little fact about the area is that it was settled by the Celts nearly 3,000 years ago – the same band of merry marauders who would settle Great Britain and – wait for it – Ireland! One of the Celt’s most enduring legacies in the area is the survival of the Galician language – often spoken and taught in schools of the region right along side Spanish. So in a way, the wines of Green Spain are the closest the Irish have come to producing world-class wine – a fact that makes it the perfect subject for a St. Patrick’s Day post (curious to see what I wrote about last year? Click away).

In particular, I want to focus on the regions of Rías Baixas (pronounced ree-ass bye-shass), known for its white wines made from the grape Albariño; Valdeorras, an interesting up-and-coming region producing wine from an indigenous grape called Godello; and Bierzo, a region where one of my favorite wines, Mencía, is made.

An Albarino vineyard in Rias Biaxas. Image used under Creative Commons via jacilluch (Flickr)

Rías Baixas, as a wine region, really didn’t come of age until the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, when winemakers of the region were introduced to modern technologies such as stainless steel tanks. From there, the quality of the region’s white wines absolutely took off and were soon recognized as among the best white wines in Spain. Albariño is a grape that makes a wine with a soft and sometimes creamy texture yet high acidity (making it an ideal companion for sea food) and flavors that can range from zippy citrus, peach and apricot to floral and sweet almond. Some of the best Albariño is also quite affordable – ranging in price from $10-15 a bottle.

Vines planted along the Ribera Sil. Image via Jose Pastor Selections

Valdeorras is further inland than Rías Baixas and Godello is planted in vineyards on the banks of the river Sil.  Godello is an ancient grape with a long storied past in the region, but was only revived and revisited by winemakers in the 1970’s. Godello  can be made in two distinct styles; young and barrel-aged. Young Godellos (Joven) are fermented in stainless steel and taste pure and minerally with lemony acidity and notes of wildflowers. Many winemakers are also experimenting with oak and making Godellos aged in barrels; these wines are more honeyed, with notes of vanilla and the stony quality of the grape coming through on the finish.

Godello grapes just hangin' out, gettin' ripe. Image used under Creative Commons via Asier Sarasua (Flickr)

Bierzo, outfitted with a perfect microclimate for viniculture, is home to the lovely Mencía. Mencía makes a wine that is traditionally lighter in body with a distinctly floral nose, flavors of bright ripe cherries and cranberries, and often a streak of herbs or anise. Just like with Godello, winemakers in the region have become bolder with their use of oak barrels for aging the wine, and its not hard to find a bottle imbued with toasty oak and spice, bigger in body than your average Mencía, but that still captures the grape’s exotic floral notes and lively fruit.

Old gnarly Mencia vines planted on slopes in the Ribeira Sacra, a region, along with Bierzo, that makes some of the best Mencia. Image via Jose Pastor Selections.

So, have I convinced you that the wines of Green Spain are worthy of your attention this St. Patrick’s day? I’ve listed some bottles below that fall below the $25 price point (except for one Mencía) for your perusing pleasure. Cheers!

Albariño:

Martin Codax ($10-15): A great introduction to Albariño, Martin Codax’s examples have gorgeous aromatics, full body, crisp acidity, and notes of pear, passion fruit, and apple on the palate. Clean, bright, and straightforward, you can’t go wrong.

Rosalia de Castro ($11): The Paco & Lola Albariño from this producer offers quite a different take on the grape, but one that is no less delightful. Herbacious and floral rather than fruit-driven, this is a super fresh wine. Full, crisp, and with a persistent finish, this wine would be great with sushi.

Adega Eidos ($22): This producer makes Albariño that is very terroir-driven, usually showing intense minerality that can range from stony to briny. Balanced by bright notes of lemon and flowers, these Albariños are complex and lengthy – great wines to pair with seafood.

Godello:

Bodega Del Abad ($10-16): This is a Godello from Bierzo, rather than Valdeorro (which are, unfortunately, pretty hard to come by stateside). Made in the young style and fermented in stainless steel, this Godello is minerally and spicy with bright notes of grapefruit and green apple. Super fresh but still fairly full-bodied and lengthy, it is a great example of Godello Joven.

A Tapada ($20-$24) From Valdeorro, this Godello is made much more in the new barrique style. Waxy, firm, and full in body, with notes of citrus and flowers, this creamy Godello has a slightly nutty character, too.

Mencía:

Benaza Mencía ($10-15): I’ve written about this super wallet-friendly Mencía before, so its no secret that its one of my faves. Light, earthy, and with a tartness that brings to mind cranberries, it also has wonderful balance and a dry finish that makes it go well with food.

Luna Beberide ($12.99): A more medium-bodied Mencía that spends some time in oak -giving it soft tannins and a touch of smoke and vanilla. This producer’s Mencías have consistently made numerous “bang for your buck” lists, and with good reason. It’s a thinker’s wine that evolves in the glass.

Guimaro ($15): If you love Cru Beaujolais as much as I do (and that ain’t no secret), then this is a great Mencía for your introduction to the grape. Violets, cherries, and some slightly smoky, earthy qualities all make this light-to-medium bodied wine delightful.

Gancedo ($19-25): A thoroughly modern Mencía, made with plenty of exposure to oak, this is a full-force wine. On the nose, notes of blackberry, liquorice, and stones lead into a wine that tastes of dark fruit and chocolate.

Descendientes de J. Palacios Petalos ($23): This is one of the most widely available bottles of Mencía in NYC. I see it all the time, so I know it’s fairly accessible. A floral nose of roses with some pink peppercorns, bright and earthy, plush and silky, this is a pretty decent price, too, for such an elegant expression of the grape.

Raul Perez Ultreia San Sacques ($30): Raul Perez is a groundbreaking winemaker in the region. Not only does he produce complex, intense wines that redefine everything you thought you knew about Mencía, but he also works with a number of other winemakers in the region as a consultant. This bottle is his most accessibly priced and a wonderful introduction to Perez – his wines can cost upwards of $90.

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On a cold rainy night last week I was introduced to the wines of Toro – incidentally, a very dry and warm winemaking region of Spain. Not only had the day’s rain dissipated into the kind of steady mist that makes you feel silly for hiding under an umbrella yet leaves you annoyingly wet without one – to make matters always worse, I had to navigate Times Square.

Eager for a drink after my damp and frenzied rush through the worst four blocks of Manhattan,  I was none too happy to find myself settled into the corner of a retro-chic red leather booth at The Lambs Club. It was my first time attending a winemaker’s dinner, and this was a much more intimate affair that the one I’d imagined. There were only seven of us seated around the table: the winemaker, Manuel Louzada of Numanthia, the lovely publicist who had arranged the dinner, an executive from Moet Hennessy (the company that owns Numanthia), three other journalists, and little old me.

It’s no wonder that we were introduced to Numanthia by way of its charming winemaker, Louzada. Born and raised in Portugal to a family that had been making wine for generations, Louzada likes to tell people that winemaking is in his blood. His is an interesting career path for a wine maker – he started off making Port, which in Louzada’s own words is all about the sheer power of nature, before moving to Argentina to work in sparkling wines – which, he said, are all about delicacy and detail.

When Moet Hennessy purchased the Numanthia label in 2006, the company invited Louzada to Spain to be the winemaker for their newest property and he fell instantly in love with the small region of Toro. The Estates & Wines division of MH is interesting all on its own; a collection of small wineries that span four continents from Napa to New Zealand. Because all of the wineries in the division are located in “New World” locations (also in Australia and Argentina), I had to ask – why Numanthia? Why Toro, Spain?

The answer was that MH snapped up properties in burgeoning wine regions – places they believed would yield unexpectedly great wines and were on their way to becoming the “next big wine region.” Also interesting, I thought, coming from such a large and globally recognized company, was the focus on smaller-scale production and the attention to detail that Louzada expressed. Several times the words artisinal  and hand crafted popped up when Louzada discussed his wines.

At the time of his move to Toro,  Louzada said he had little idea of the region’s potential or history. In fact, Toro is an ancient wine making region located in the northeast near the Castille-Leon region of Spain, just across the Douro River from the Portuguese border. In an interesting turn of fate, Louzada said that the Portuguese had a habit of looking out towards the sea rather than in towards their own country and that in a way, moving to Toro was bringing Louzada full-circle and back to his roots.

Toro is a region with a fascinating history; it is said that Columbus took Toro wine with him on his journey to America in 1492 because its immense structure and body made it suitable to survive long journeys. Though the vineyards of Numanthia don’t yield vines quite that old, there are 150-200 year old vines still growing in the area. These Toro vines are a rare and direct link to the wines of Europe before the phylloxera plague of the late 19th century destroyed about two thirds of the continent’s vineyards. The region is largely made up of a sandy soil that kept the Phylloxera at bay and protected the vines from the devastating plague.

The only red grape grown and used to make wine in Toro is called Tinta de Toro. The wines of the region are known as massive and powerful red wines and Louzada regailed us with stories of painfully losing his sense of taste for weeks after he had conducted barrel tastings of his first vintage –the tannins of the wine were so powerful. Louzada, with his background in sparkling wines and his penchant for detail set out to create wines that maintained the freshness of the fruit while using the tannins inherent to the grapes to sustain them and give body and structure.

Louzada said time and again throughout the dinner that his goal was to balance the concentration and intensity of the wines with elegance. He was inspired, he said, by the tastes he found in the vineyards themselves and aimed to give an impression of each vintage. The terroir of the region, Louzada said, was so massive and so concentrated that it had to be reigned in.

The first wine we tasted was the yet-to-be-released 2009 Termes. According to Louzada that year was riper, slightly warmer, and made a lighter and fruitier wine that was suitable for drinking now. This was not the first time I’d heard this from winemakers (remember the 2009 Bordeaux that could have been a fruit-bomb California Cab?).  In the glass, the wine was gorgeous and dark, the nose had the slightly sweet smell of toasted oak, liquourice and a whiff of eucalyptus. The wine was paired with a beef carpaccio drizzled with a fruity olive oil that had an amazing conversation with the wine – the olive oil’s musky and melony flavors brought out the fruit in the wine and the wine spoke back with echos of olives and dust.

It was really amazing, and when we all nodded in pleasure, proclaiming that we liked the wine, Louzada gave a shy boy “aw shucks” shrug that couldn’t have been more endearing.

Next up, we drank the 2007 Numanthia, which smelled like wet dirt, earth and cherries. This wine had big tannins and tasted of leather, coffee, and toasted oak. Paired with succulent medallions of veal, the wine’s unctuous flavors spoke to the sweet gaminess of the meat.

Last on our tour of Numanthia was the 2008 Teremanthia with a nose of baked blackberries that made it seem heavy and dark until it arrived on the palate where it was plush with dark fruit but supported by lots of tannin.  That was the wine, Louzada claimed, the stars had aligned to make.

While we drank each of these wines, Louzada emphasized that he was driven by his desire to achieve balance. Louzada wanted his wines to, he said, seduce in the nose and pleasure on the palate – making him a sort of oenophile’s Casanova. By the end of the dinner we’d all fallen in love with Louzada’s wines – rich, complex, powerful and elegant.

After last week’s tasting, I can see why all eyes are on Toro as Spain’s next big region – though I’m wary that just anyone should try to coax a wine with mass appeal from the region’s sandy soils. Indeed, this must be a region that  is as challenging for the vines as it is for the winemaker who tries to tame them. A winemaker looking to conquer the wines of Toro must have just the right blend of pioneer and perfectionist – such as can be found in Numathia’s Louzada.

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I have a horrible habit of thinking it’s hilarious to pronounce Champagne like “Champ-Ag-Nee.” Regardless of how you want to say it, Champagne is weird stuff. At its most interesting, Champagne is a product of sheer ingenuity – of centuries of curious tinkering, trial, and error. At its most expensive, Champagne is one of the most successful tales of marketing in the history of food and beverage. And at its most refined, Champagne is the stuff of delirious gustatory delight and celebration.

So, what exactly is Champagne?

Champagne is a sparkling wine made from Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Noir grapes that are grown exclusively in the Champagne region of France.

Queue the sound effect of tires coming to a screeching haltPinot Noir? But that’s a red grape! And Champagne is white!

Not exactly – the skins of the Pinot Noir grape (and the Pinot Meunier grape for that matter) are most definitely red but(!) the juice of the grape is actually white. If you separate the juice from the skin early in the wine making process, you’re left with the makings of a white wine.

Champagnes made from only Pinot Noir grapes or a mixture of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are called Blanc de Noirs (literally translates to “white from red”). Similarly, Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay grapes is called a Blanc de Blanc (white from white). In a similarly confusing fashion, most Champagne is made from a mixture of grapes harvested in different years (usually marked N.V.). However, if a particular year (aka vintage) proves to be exceptional, under the laws of the powers that be, a Champagne Vintage may be produced that contains grapes exclusively from that one year.

Pretty Champagne vines in Fall

In Europe, where they are much stricter about these things, not only must a wine called Champagne be made from grapes grown within this small region, but that wine must also be produced by a specific and traditional method (here in America, we’re not so particular – you can slap “Champagne” on a $5 bottle of Andre. God bless America!). This method requires that the effervescence, or bubbles, in Champagne be produced by a second fermentation in the bottle.

This means that, to start, Champagne is made just like any other wine – the grapes are harvested and thrown into a fermentation tank along with some yeast. The yeast converts the natural sugar present in the grapes into alcohol and voila! A wine is born. To make that wine into Champagne, it is poured directly into the bottle along with some extra sugar (called dosage), some more yeast and set aside to age for a minimum of 1.5 years or 15 months. During those years when a vintage is declared (a year when the harvest is exceptional), bottles must be allowed to age for twice as long – for a minimum of three years.

Merci, Madame Clicquot!

For a long time, because yeast and sugar were introduced directly into the bottle, Champagne was a cloudy wine – it had all kinds of fun particulates floating around! It was the infamous Widow Clicquot (of Veuve Clicquot) who introduced the use of something called a riddling table (a table that holds Champagne bottles upside down so that the sediment from secondary fermentation settled into the neck of the bottle and made it easier to draw off) that was used to produce the sparkling clear Champagne we know and love today.

Notice: A guy all decked out in formal top hat and tails and an elegant evening-gown clad lady.

So, if Champagne is such a specific wine why do we have a habit of calling any old sparkling wine Champagne? This is where we get into a case study of brilliant marketing. Even before it came to resemble the stuff we drink today, Champagne had long been treasured by European royalty and French aristocracy and imbibed at official ceremonies and celebrations. The method champenoise wasn’t introduced until around 1700 (and, coincidentally, not in Champagne but probably somewhere in the Languedoc region). Before the method was introduced to the winemakers of the region, Champagne was imbibed as a still wine, and often only during celebratory occasions – it was, even back then, the good stuff you busted out for company. Champagne, then, was always a wine associated with luxury, prestige, and celebration.

During the 1800’s Champagne houses and producers took advantage of their product’s rarified past and began marketing it to the burgeoning middle class at home and abroad. Take a look at any old Champagne ad (if you don’t already have a poster up on your wall) and you’ll see the instant appeal.. Needless to say, the Champagne industry did gangbusters.

However that success was not built entirely on marketing a lifestyle – Champagne is amazing stuff. The range of styles; from delicate, floral and dreamy to biscuity and savory younger varieties to the rich and complex mature examples make Champagne exactly the kind of indulgence that pairs perfectly with just about any occasion.

So, to review:

A true Champagne may only be made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes grown within the Champagne appellation and subjected to the traditional and specific method of secondary in-bottle fermentation

Methode Champoinese is the traditional method by which Champagne is produced. Sparkling wines that are made in other regions may indicate that they were produced in this same fashion. If you see a sparkling wine that has Methode Champoinese or Methode traditionelle on the label, it just means that the wine was made using the same technique as Champagne – with the secondary in-bottle fermentation and aging.

Blanc de Blancs is Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay grapes. You may see other sparkling wines that are called Blanc de Blancs – and they may be made from white grapes other than Chardonnay.

Blanc de Noirs is Champagne made from either 100% Pinot Noir or a mixture of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. You may see other sparkling wines that identify themselves as Blanc de Noirs – this just mean’s they’re made from red grapes, not that they’re Champagne.

Vintage : A Vintage Champagne means that all of the grapes used to make the wine (regardless of varietal) were harvested in the same year and that that year produced an exceptional harvest. A Vintage Champagne also means that the wine was aged for at least 3 years in the bottle. If you see N.V. on a Champagne label, it means that the wine was not produced as a Vintage and could have been made from grapes from different years.

Brut, Extra Brut, Sec, and Demi Sec are all terms that are commonly found on Champagne labels as well as on the labels of other sparkling wines. Brut indicates a dry wine; Extra Brut means, incidentally, extra dry; Sec means sweeter than Brut but still on the dry side; Demi Sec is used to indicate a sweet sparkling wine.

Next week, I’ll be looking at sparkling wines other than Champagne – Prosecco, Cava, Cremant, and New World sparklers. Stay tuned!

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