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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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That’s right…your humble little blogger got an article in the June 2012 Issue of Wine Enthusiast! I’ve uploaded a picture for ya but if you’re so inclined, you should go get an issue and then write in to the editors to tell them how my piece was your favorite piece. Because, you know… you love me. The story is all about how there are some really cool winemakers in California using some interesting Italian Varieties. Of course, the story got significantly chopped and there are SO many great winemakers I interviewed and whose wines I sampled that didn’t make it into the piece. For them, I’ll be writing an in-depth roundup of the best of these new and interesting wines – so watch out for that in the next few days. Cheers!

 

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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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       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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Ah, Valentines Day. I can’t believe it’s almost here already!  That most singularly reviled holiday amongst singletons and couples alike. Singletons get sad that they’re all alone while couples often buckle under the pressure of concocting the perfect day. No wonder it’s a holiday so often associated with that most luxurious quaff, Champagne – perhaps the most pleasant way to a quick buzz (amIright?). Read into it what you want (and surely one too many movies have used the euphimism of the exploding cork for certain, ahem, activities) but Champagne is certainly a wine that exudes romance; famously finicky and hard to make – yet endlessly indulgent and exceedingly delicious when done right. Just like any great relationship, right?

Whether you’re planning on serving Champagne with one of its famously aphrodisiac companions or sipping it with the gals while watching SATC reruns, I’ve rounded up 10 wonderful Champagnes and sparkling wines (because it can only be called Champagne if it’s actually from Champagne. Want to learn more about that? Click here.) available for your purchasing pleasure around NYC right this way on my very favorite fashion site, Refinery 29.

PS: Wanna learn all the nitty gritty that goes into Champagne? Head over to my blog post: “Champagne: So much more than a bubbly wine that’s fun to mispronounce”

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Why not the obvious 10 Winter Wines? Because when its 18 degrees outside, sometimes you need a little something extra to get you out into the world (amIright?) and so, dear readers, I’ve given you just that. Below you’ll find a collection of some of my favorite recent wines – I’ve got plenty more coming your way but these should all keep you nice and warm for now. And just in case you’re bummed that I’ve squandered an opportunity to ramble mercilessly before, after, and during my wine discussions, fear not! For there is a lovely little chunk of Forget Burgundy goodness in each bite-sized…erm…review?  Cheers!

Reds

Bodegas Muga 2007 Reserva Unfiltered ($26.99)* : This beauty was a finish-in-one-night bottle. When I mentioned to a dear old friend that I had a bottle of Rioja that I’d been meaning to taste lying around she exclaimed that she’d been loving her some Rioja lately and that was that. Powerful but lively with red fruit, undertones of chocolate and a kiss of oak, this was the perfect wine for a long night of catching up, old laughs, and chilly weather. So what does it mean that its unfiltered, you ask? A lot of winemakers these days like to pour their finished product through a fine-pored filter to ensure a crystal-clear wine but some more traditionally minded devotees, insist that this can strip a wine of some of its finer aromas and flavors and, thus, decline to filter their wine. However, this doesn’t mean that this wine was cloudy by any means it was perfectly clear and just as delicious.

Trumpeter Rutini Wines Merlot 2010 ($12)* : This Merlot from Mendoza, Argentina’s Malbec territory was a really pleasant surprise. Sideways snobbery aside, I love a good Merlot. That’s right – I. love. Merlot. And this particular bottle was eager to please. This wine was juicy with flavors of black cherries and some brooding darker fruit that was set off with some nice subtle spice and rich full body all held up by firm but not overpowering tannin that made it a pleasure to drink all by its lonesome but also would have lent itself well to pairing with dinner.

Valle dell’Acate Frappato 2010 ($18) : Ah, Frappato – that strange little grape from Sicily. When a few friends and I went to one of my favorite wine bars, The Tangled Vine, on a recent Wednesday evening we were delighted to find out that on that particular day of the week they’ll serve any of the wines on their wine list by-the-glass if you commit to two glasses. In the face of such a glut of wonderful options, I gleefuly chose this little gem. When it arrived, the wine’s pretty scent was practically curling out of our wine glasses like the seductive pink hand-shaped puffs of perfume that, once upon a time, enticed cartoon characters to follow with love-struck infatuation. Strawberries, raspberries, and roses danced around the rim of the glass and delivered a light, floral and juicy wine with bright acid and a lovely finish.

2009 Chateau Coupe Roses “La Bastide” Minervois ($15) : Minervois is an AOC within the larger Languedoc-Roussilon region in the South of France (just west of Provence). For a long time, the Languedoc was the source of many of France’s ordinary table wines – and those from Minervois were particularly favored as great go-to’s for bistro fare. This particular wine, made from a mixture of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah is a wonderful example of an easy-to-drink wine that pairs well with all kinds of food. On the nose, this wine is a little bit barnyard – a little funky in the best sensebut with a crisp medium body that’s packed with plummy fruit and a dusty dark-chocolatey finish.

Dievole Dievolino Chianti DOCG 2008 ($14)* : I’ll be honest, most of the time I think about Chianti I think about it as a wine my dad loves to order. It’s not usually something that I pay a lot of attention – it’s a little been-there-done-that. This bottle, however, was a complete and pleasant surprise! Lively and bright with typical Sangiovese flavors of cherries and plums, this wine gets a little more serious the longer you sip it – unfurling flavors of tobacco and an earthy quality that make it stand out. It would be the perfect companion to a plate of pasta swimming in red sauce or something yummy and Parmigiano-ish.

San Pietro Lagrein 2009 ($15) : So there I was, hearing about this weird little grape called “Lagrein” for the first time and thinking that maybe I’d picked up on something new going on in the wide world of wine. Enter stage left: Google. Guess who wrote about Lagrein way back in March? You guessed it – good ole Eric Asimov at the New York Times. Drats! Any ways, Asimov might have written up this Northern Italian variety months ago, but it’s only just now popping up on wine lists all over NYC and making a more noticeable appearance on retail shelves. It’s not hard to see why either; Lagrein makes a plump, juicy red wine that’s high on acid, low on tannin, and fruity but not fruit-bomby. It’s the wine geek’s answer to Pinot-fatigue –  just as nice to sip on its own as it is to pair with lots of different kinds of food. 

Erste + Neue Lagrein 2010 ($18) : With my insatiable curiosity not yet quite sated, I was determined to get a fair swing at Lagrein. Purchased at Eataly’s wine shop – I brought this home to be my cooking companion while a friend casually whipped up some braised pork cheek caramelized ragu to be served over the funniest little curly pasta I’ve ever seen. Seeing as my friend was too busy cooking to actually pay me any mind while I clamored (danced, maybe?) for attention, I sure was glad I’d decided to purchase a bottle of wine for sipping-while-cooking. But enough about me. The wine? It was lovely – tingling acidity, warm ripe fruits, and a nice tight finish without a ton of tannin that made it effortlessly sippable. Dare I say gulpable?

Whites (and a Rosé )

Bodegas Muga 2010 Blanco ($15.99)* : Look, its hard enough to get me to drink white wine most of the time anyways. Add winter into the mix and you’ve got yourself a bonafide challenge. One this wine was happy to live up to. I schlepped this baby all the way from the UWS to a friend’s dinner party in Williamsburg – do you know how opposite those two places are? Like, the most opposite. Anyways. My friends were serving up a smorgasbord of leftover this-and-that and this wine managed to be a true crowd pleaser – the girl in the bumblebee outfit (she had just come from protesting Montsanto at OWS) loved it paired with dark chocolate just a much as I did alongside the pulled pork tacos. It had a gorgeous nose that leapt right out of the glass – orange blossom and melon – that was followed by a rich and full-bodied wine with flavors of peaches, a nice kiss of oak and a lively minerally finish.

Prieure de Montezargues Tavel AOC Rosé 2010 ($28)* : I’m kindof having a thing with rosé right now. It’s totally inexplicable given the frigid temperatures outside (seriously, right now I could chill wine leaving it by the window for a few minutes) but it’s just one of those things, I guess. This beautiful rosé from the Tavel AOC in the Rhone, across the river from famed Chateauneuf-du-Pape, tasted just as pretty as it looked. Delicate and subtle, with a nose of ripe grapefruit and pear, the crisp flavor of white raspberries was rounded out by a rich full body and long finish that expressed soft notes of ripe peaches. On a salad night, this is exactly what I want to add some indulgence.

Domaine du Tariquet Chenin-Chardonnay 2010 ($10)* : As I’ve made it no secret that Chardonnay is not my favorite grape, and that I love Chenin Blanc, I thought this wine might just be a great compromise. Calling this wine a compromise is to undermine just how delicious it is. At $10 a bottle, this is a wonderful wine – combining the rich sweetness and minerality of chenin blanc with the richness and big fruit of Chardonnay. The price means this wine might just enter into my rotation as a go-to everyday bottle when I’m in the mood for a white wine or have to entertain a crowd that clamors for Chardonnay.

Chateau La Nerthe Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2010 ($58)* : Yes, Chateauneuf-du-Pape is known for its earthy, spicy, and rich red wines. But this wine is a great example of just how good the oft-overlooked whites from the area can be as well! This is a rich and full-bodied white that has an intense expressive nose of ripe peaches and a hint of bitter citrus peel. Smooth and delightfully round on the palate, with ripe fruit and a long finish, this wine nonetheless has a nice lively acidity to lift it up and a pretty floral quality to the very end. If ever you’re looking for a rich, full bodied white to keep you warm on a winter’s night, this is definitely a great choice.

*denotes that this wine was a press sample

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That’s right, I’m blatantly attempting to co-op some gooogle searches by making a OWS reference…but who can blame me? Tis the season, after all, and what are the holidays really good for if not being shameless? So anyways…

Tasting some gorgeous sparklers by candle ligh at Winston's Champagne Bar in NYC

There’s nothing more apropos of a celebration than the spectacular pop of opening a Champagne bottle and the effusive gush of bubbles that comes next. Although we may call it Champagne, in America at least, just as often as not, the sparkling stuff we’re toasting with isn’t Champagne at all – it’s a sparkling wine.

So, what’s the big deal? The French – the only ones who make true Champagne aren’t too keen on letting just any one borrow the name. True Champagnes are produced only from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or Pinot Meunier grapes grown in the Champagne region of France and produced using the traditional méthode champenoise. But you knew all that, didn’t you, dear reader?

While Champagne may be the wine. that started it all, when it comes to sparkling wine, there are more options that are just as delicious and not nearly as expensive than ever before. Seeing as the holidays are quickly approaching and ‘tis the season for celebration, I’ve rounded up some great alternatives to the season’s favorite bubbly libation, Champagne.

Before we get started on some wonderful & affordable Champagne alternatives, if you want to try a great Champagne, try Taittinger Brut Prestige Rose NV ($50):  A gorgeous salmon color, this Rose features a toasty nose that has hints of burnt rubber and an extremely gorgeous fine bubble. On the palate, ripe berries and bright acidity make this a beautiful and delicious example of the best Champagne has to offer. 

*Note: Crémant is the indicator that the French came up with to connote sparkling wines from French regions other than Champagne, so anytime you see a wine labeled Crémant you’ll know you have a sparkler on your hands.

Crémant D’Alsace is the sparkling wine made in Alsace, France’s main Riesling-producing region. That said, these wines are often produced with – you guessed it! – Riesling, along with Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir. These sparklers are made using the same production method as Champagnes and can range from slightly sweet (demi-sec) to dry (brut) and extremely dry (extra brut). Cremant D’Alsace is usually considered a refreshing, floral, and crisp sparkling wine.

Try: Domaine Agape Cremant D’Alsace NV ($19)

Crémant de Limoux: Limoux is a region in the south west of France and the main grape of the region is an obscure varietal called Mauzac, but another local varietal called Blanquette along with Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc are also grown here. Some believe that Limoux is the birthplace of the méthode champenoise – stumbled upon by monks in the 16th century. These sparklers tend to show the biscuity, herbal, and yeasty flavors that drive some Champagne lovers wild.

Try: Domaine J. Laurens Cremant de Limoux Brut Les Graimenous 2008 ($18)

 Blanquette de Limoux: Produced from the same grapes in the same region as Crémant de Limoux, these wines are set apart by a restriction on the percentage of Mauzac that must be used (90%). The other 10% can be Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, or a mixture of both. Mauzac lends these wines a distinctive taste of apple and spices (very cider-ish), and sometimes aromas of fresh cut grass.

Try: Antech Blanquette de Limoux Grande Reserve Brut ($15)

Crémant De Jura: Jura is a small region located along France’s border with Switzerland and is known for making a unique style of oxidized white wine that have a distinct taste and orange hue. White and rosé wines can be produced from local obscure grapes Poulsard and Trousseau and also Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris. These sparklers often have a musky aroma with flavors of ripe peaches and orange peel.

Try: Philippe Bornard Cremant De Jura NV  ($22.99)

Crémant de Loire (aka Vouvray Brut): Vouvray is the name of the region most commonly associated with sparkling wines from France’s Loire Valley, but the region also produces still wines. Either way, these wines are made from Chenin Blanc, a grape with naturally high acidity – making it great for pairing with food. The wines produced from this grape also have a sweetness followed up by characteristic minerality. Sparkling wines from the Loire Valley are often especially aromatic and beloved for their honeyed floral perfume.

Try: Bouvet Brut NV ($12) – This non-vintage sparkler made from 80% Chenin Blanc and 20% Chardonnay comes from the second oldest winery in the Loire Valley. It has a very buttery and yeasty nose that comes from having been made in the methode champoinese. On the palate there is bright acidity and sweet minerality balanced by notes of lime and citric peel.

Prosecco: This Italian bubbly has only become more popular as a Champagne substitute and for good reason – it’s very affordable and makes a light crisp sparkling wine. Prosecco is made from a grape that goes by the same name and is not made in the same way as Champagne; its secondary fermentation usually takes place in steel tanks rather than in-bottle.

Try: Caposaldo Prosecco ($12) – This Prosecco is always made to order so it’s unbelievably fresh! With a nose of bubblegum, this sparkler has the kind of clean palate that boasts flavors of pears and a slight minerality that would make it a perfect appertif. Slightly sweet and with a creamy bubble, this is a lovely little wine.

Asti: Another Italian sparkler, Asti is a sparkling wine made throughout the northern region of Piedmont. Made using the same technique as Prosecco, rather than with the méthode champenoise, Asti is produced from the Moscato Bianco grape. Speaking of Moscato, Moscato d’Asti is made in the same region (Asti) from the same grape, but is only slightly sparkling (frizzante) and tends to have less alcohol. Both, however, are sweeter wines that tend to have a very floral bouquet, and flavors of ripe peaches, nectarines, and apricots that are balanced by high acidity.

Try: Michele Chiarlo Nivole Moscato d’Asti DOCG 2010 ($15): Honey and white flowers on the nose are followed up by sweet ripe peaches on the palate and held up by enough acidity to keep the sweetness from becoming cloying. Delicious!

Cava: Cava is a Spanish sparkling wine that is made using the same technique as Champagne using the traditional macabeu, parellada and xarel·lo grapes. Cava, like Champagne, can range in style from very dry (brut nature) to sweet and is a great celebratory sparkler that is usually very crisp and refreshing.

Try: Poema Rosado NV ($11) –  This Rose is a very deep blush – almost ruby colored. With a nose of tar and roses, it’s easy to tell at once that this is not your ordinary rose. On the palate are flavors of bright red fruits like cherries and raspberries, a juicy acidity, and the slightest sweetness.

Happy Holidays and a Wonderful New Year to you all! I leave you with this:

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