Category Archives: Wine Education

Champagne 101

’tis the season… for Champagne of course!

Champagne reigns as the gift-of-choice during the holidays, and for good reason.

True Champagne, the real stuff from the actual region of Champagne; there is nothing like it. Just drinking it ignites all of your senses. It reflects joy, celebrations and happy gatherings of friends and family.

Should you choose to stock up on Champagne this season (and I hope you do) think of this as your cheat sheet on buying the ideal bottle, whether it is for you or for a gift.

The facts about Champagne & tips on how to read the label

The grapes
There are 3 grapes used to make Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
Some wines have all 3 grapes, some have only one or two.
On the label you may see the following:
Blanc de Blancs – means “white of white” and is made only of Chardonnay; lighter in style & crisply delicious – this is a great apperatif or with seafood. A great producer is Salon
Blanc de Noirs – means “white of black” and is a white champagne made from either Pinot Noir or both Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (both red grapes); usually fuller-bodied than blanc de blanc, this style enjoys the ability to match with a variety of foods.
Rose – could be only one grape or all three, but must contain some % of a red grape – that’s where it gets the pink color! Also a great match with food – and good for any reason you might be in the mood for pink.

Non-Vintage vs. Vintage
Non-vintage wines are exactly what they say they are – not from a particular vintage. They are blends of a few wines from different years. Remember, Champagne begins as a blend of still wine. If the Chardonnay of 2011 is not acidic enough, they’ll pull some of the 2010 or 2009 Chardonnay and blend it in for acidity. The goal is consistency. So that the NV of Veuve Clicquot you buy this year will be consistent with the one you bought last year. Most NV Champagne represent a house “style” that the winemaker tries to maintain so that the consumer knows what they are getting. NV wines should be drunk within a year or two of purchase.

Some years the vintage is so delightful that the houses of Champagne declare a vintage year. The blend is made only from grapes in that vintage – no adding of back vintages allowed. Vintage wines are low in supply and high in demand, and therefore a bit more pricy than that NV. Most vintage champagnes can age about 10 to 15 years, sometimes longer. Some houses don’t even release their Champagne until 10 years later because of the amount of bottle aging they prefer – Dom Perignon released their 2004 vintage about the same time Krug released their 2000.

Other label tid-bits
Premier Cuvee or Tete de Cuvee – means the top of the top, the best blend of the house. Some good examples include Krug’s Grand Cuvee, Bollinger’s Grand Annee and Charles Heidsieck’s Champagne Charlie
Premier Cru and Grand Cru – Some vineyards in Champagne, like other areas of France are labeled Premier Cru or Grand Cru vineyards. If a house purchases all of its grapes from grand cru or premier cru vineyards, they may put that on their label.

Levels of Sweetness
Extra Brut – Bone dry
Brut – very dry, but with more dosage
Sec – Still very dry, but with a hint of sweetness
Demi-Sec – technically means “half dry” but really is half sweet
Doux – sweetest of the Champagne, more rare, often more expensive, and a delicious balance of sweetness and acidity.

And now, our favorites!

Under $40
Ayala Brut 
Pommery Brut Royal

Under $70
Bollinger Brut Special Cuvee
Louis Roederer Brut Premier
Gosset Grande Reserve

Under $100 
Beau Joie Champagne Brut
Champagne Barons de Rothschild Brut

And of course, my all time favorite…
Champagne Krug Cuvee

Cheers!

A guide to finding value in Bordeaux

It’s a classic region, with classic wines. So often seen as unattainable, and even undrinkable, Bordeaux is slowly overcoming these misconceptions in the wine world. You can find affordable aged Bordeaux, and ready-to-drink young Bordeaux. Just need to know what to look for…

Getting into the wine industry some 10 years ago, I learned about Bordeaux – I memorized the regions and sub-regions, the left bank and right bank and the classifications systems. But over the past decade, I’ve slowly learned to DRINK Bordeaux.

By now I’m sure you know that Bordeaux is not limited to high-priced futures that go in the cellar, or less-than-palatable cheap stuff. But do you know what is a great value in Bordeaux? It seems to be an ongoing process to let the wine drinking population know what kind of Bordeaux belongs on your dinner table, or in the everyday drinking slot.

And, so, here are my tips on finding great “affordable” Bordeaux that you can drink now and, most importantly, enjoy.

1. Find a great chateau in a poor vintage
“Poor” vintage may be a broad statement, but some vintages don’t demand high prices at release, so top producers of the region release wines at lower prices. Even in lesser vintages, great producers craft quality wine, so those are ones to pick up.

Chateau Malartic-Lagraviere 2006 ($49.99)

2. Buy older wines at a value.
Some vintages are highly acclaimed at release (2000 vintage), but then a few years later, even better vintages arrive (2005 and 2009) and so the 2000, and then the 2005, looses some of it’s shine. Those with that vintage to still sell offer a great opportunity: the ability to purchase an older Bordeaux from a great vintage. When I say “affordable” in this sense, I’m not talking under $50, but more like under $100…  Great picks include:

Chateau La Croix du Casse 2000 ($59.99)
Chateau Clos L’Eglise Cotes de Castillon 2005 ($36.99)

3. Find village wines from fantastic vintages
This is my favorite value category… There are highly-acclaimed vintages that demand extremely high prices from top chateau, but a universally wonderful vintage means event the entry-level wines will be delicious. So give some of the under $20 village wines a try! Right now, if you grab wines from 2009, 2010 and 2011, you’ll be in great shape.  This is where I find the most values, so have the most recommendations!

Chateau Haut Bergey 2010 ($37.99)
Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte Le Petit 2009 ($36.99)
Actually, there are so many good ones, this is the list you should shop. Stock up for the holidays and enjoy!

Savoring Champagne

PicMonkey Collage

In the 1965 musical, The Sound of Music, a smiling Captain Georg von Trapp tells his 16 year-old daughter Liesl, “No,” when she sheepishly asks him “I’d like to stay and have my first taste of Champagne.” I was barely a teenager when I saw the blue-eyed Liesl posing this question to her father, but this scene has always stayed with me. This was about the first time I had my first sip of Champagne as I stole a glass that my parents had poured. All I can remember is they smiled and toasted a lot when they drank it. What is it about Champagne? Its magic and allure, what does it mean to different people? Whether it merely tickles your nose or tantalizes the palate, everyone has a slightly different spin on one of the most iconic beverages in the world.

When I started as a young wine professional, I had heard so much about Dom Pérignon that I could not wait to try it. As my career grew, I went onto Krug Grande Cuvée, Bollinger Grande Année, Louis Roederer Cristal, Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame and the like, but only as a member of the trade. My realistic budget keeps me at the non-vintage level.

The story of Champagne is enormous and complex. Long-time wine writer Ed McCarthy writes, “All great Prestige Cuveés demand 15 to 20 years of aging. Drink them young and you’re wasting your money.” While Mr. McCarthy can savor his old cellar treasures, we normal folks must make do with the beauty of non-vintage bruts and perhaps once in a while trek into the land of the sublime.

Non-vintage brut Champagne runs the show and defines each house’s style. I drink them fresh and zingy. If I am certain that the wine has just arrived then I may give it two to three years of bottle age. While I enjoy my red wines (cabernets, pinot noirs, zinfandels, red blends, etc.), I never get bored with a glass of Champagne. The aforementioned special offerings are wines that one must age. Over time, they will lose their vitality and gain incredible complexity that one can only experience from the terroir of Champagne, about an hour’s drive from Paris.

When Dom Pérignon is in its youth, it is elegant and refined. Generally not overtly yeasty, it is always enjoyable. As it ages, it changes and often becomes wonderfully complex and the rules of engagement change. Instead of merely toasting a great moment, the Champagne becomes a spectacular foil for the most imaginative chefs around the world. The 2004 Dom Pérignon is really fine and already shows core fruit, sweet earth and wild mushrooms in its flavors. Time will make this wine even better. I recommend patience of at least 10 years. When I was a teenager, I drank my first Champagne. Now as an old wine guy, I savor an old bottle just as I would aged Bordeaux, Burgundy or other classic still wines.

Austrian Wines- Grüner takes a Chardonnay Spin?

14_09_22 1300 Franz Leth@Anchor & Hope_3930_Blog

It was some time ago (circa 2003), in a dark place when I tasted my first Grüner. I had no idea (well maybe a little) of what this unusual white wine was about. Where was I? In some San Francisco Bay Area wine bar with a couple of somm friends as I recall. So what is it about Grüner that drives us wine folks crazy? The wine generally comes in a hock bottle, with its German and low-alcohol history, but the Austrian white wines are far different from their German counterparts. Can we talk Chardonnay here? I was reminded of this when I posed a facebook question and my friend Alison Smith Story of Story Wine Cellars brought this notion to my attention. I never could understand completely why Grüner Veltliner was so appealing but I did enjoy the wine’s fatness without the aid of oak or residual sugar. I am now thinking, could there be a similarity between Grüner Veltliner and un-oaked Chardonnay.

Recently I dined in San Francisco at Anchor & Hope with Franz Leth Jr. of Weingut Leth (now in their 3rd Generation of this family owned and operated winery). Pairing his Grüner Veltliners with the Crab Louis, heirloom beans, olives, butter lettuce, and rémoulade worked perfectly as Franz talked passionately about the winery’s south facing vineyards, just to the north of the Danube River. The discussion proved enlightening as he talked about how the vineyard site encouraged excellent ripeness and great acidity. I have hundreds of buried notes in my cellar on Austrian wines. I will re-visit them and get myself up to speed on what is currently going on in Austria.

Stay tuned as the Austrian wines, food matching and discussion I enjoyed with Franz materializes in more Grüners in my future. I have finally emerged from that dark place, a decade ago, and become an enlighten advocate of Austrian wines. Now when you think of Chardonnay and seafood you may need to spin the choice to Grüner Veltliner as an alternative.