After our trip to Champagne last June, I decided to put away my notes and write my blog in December, when the season appears to be more conducive to consume the bubbly. Stop!!!! “HERESY” scream the Champenois, “Champagne time is all the time!”. And it was… Let just say that one can OD on the stuff: for 3 days we tasted and drank Champagne from morning to bed time…
It is through a pleasant drive from Paris thru beautiful rolling hills of vineyard after vineyard that you access the villages where the Grandes Marques of Champagne are located, they go on and on and just know that every acre of vineyard is worth a little more than $1 million bucks, pretty much like R S Fe property! On these vineyards grow Pinot Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, the Pinot Noir can be used to make regular Champagne (by removing the skins after a couple of days or hours of pressing) or Rosé by adding a certain quantity of Pinot noir to the assemblage.
It is a treat to visit the beautiful old houses that harbor the famous brands of Champagne, all dating back to the 18th century, most of these houses bear the name of a Dutch or English prior owner (a few French) who were at the time, the main consumers of the stuff. The Russians tsars could not get enough nor could the English court aswell as the Dutch royalty.
These estates are built on top of deep chalky soil with miles and miles of caves dug up thru the centuries; chock full of millions of bottles resting in perfect temperature and humidity before being dispatched to every corner of the world. It is mind boggling that, just in the small village of Ay, to name just one, they have created over 100 miles of large tunnels, built on top of each other, 3 deep.
Not to bore you on how Champagne is made (you can easily Google it), note that you can spend minor of very big money on the different levels and bottling of the sparkling nectar: the scale of Champagne starts with the Non-Vintage one (the most common) which is a product of mixing several vintages of still wine, some as old as 15 years to the latest harvest (typically 2 years old) to reproduce the special taste and profile which is the hallmark of each brand vintage after vintage: not an easy task! Then of course will be the vintage bottling of Brut, Blanc de Blanc, Rosé or Cremant ( the recent great vintages now available are 1996 and 2002) and at the top of the pyramid the special vintage bottlings, ie: Salon “Clos du Mesnil”, Dom Perignon “Oenotheque”, Pol Roger “Sir Winston Churchill”, Cristal and many, many others.
Enough of the technicalities, the Champagne producers are proud to say (almost a litany) that you never get a hangover from Champagne and one can enjoy his bubbly with everything from fish to venison, caviar to chocolate in fact, it is hard to find a dish that will clash with this lovely liquid. I love the richness and roundness of the Chardonnay, the yeastiness of the Pinot Meunier and the elegance and depth of the Pinot Noir, all these grapes are blended in different quantities by the different houses or may compose 100% of each bottling. Only with much tasting can you decide which Champagne will be your favorite, or you may like them all, as do I!
So you get the idea, for the holidays, raise a flute: Champagne is great for special occasions but it is also wonderful for any and all occasions (I will collect my vig from the association of Champagne growers later!), and remember, NO hangover, what a plus!
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In the Mediterranean countries, rosé is synonym of summer, it is typically dry and displays fresh fruit flavors usually leaning to strawberry, raspberry or peaches.
Of course most wine connoisseurs will sneer when rosé is mentioned, but sales are on the rise in the US: think of it as nice, crisp, fairly low in alcohol wine, a perfect aperitif, then it grows on you and before you know it, you have enjoyed your rosé throughout the meal, as I often do!
In fact while recently vacationing in St Barth, we drank rosé every meal- just like everyone else- all the restaurants were offering at least a dozen different bottlings.
Rosés, although having to overcome the image problem brought on by the dreaded “white zinfandel stigma,” are perhaps the most versatile and food-friendly wines around.
The wines are the product of keeping the red grape juices in very short contact with red grape skins, typically 2 or 3 days.
Rosés are wonderful substitute to the heavy Chardonnays or big reds and of course, as a rule, they are much more affordable.
The shelves of our local wine shops will give you lots of choices: US growers are steadily introducing more “not white Zin” rosés. My favorites (inspired by my origins: I was weaned on them!) are from Provence, Languedoc and the Rhone. The Loire rosés are are also an option to taste but have the tendency to be sweeter.
So, I’d encourage you to buy a few different bottles and experiment. I know you’ll enjoy it and I hope you thank me for it!
My views on wine service both in a restaurant and at home
Here are my views on wine service:
I preach these simple points to my employees and I believe that it is also valid when you serve wine in your house.
The first and most important point is to provide clean and odorless vessels, too often the glasses and decanters have been kept on the shelves after coming out of the dishwasher, the chemicals have now dried out and they have imparted a distinct musty, cardboard smell and taste to your wine.
Rinse your glasses and decanters before use; I also recommend that you hand towel them to get rid of unsightly spots on the glass.
Use appropriate glassware as much as possible, by that I mean a glass big enough that you can swirl the liquid and enjoy its aroma, remember, we taste mainly with our noses.
Do not overfill the glasses when pouring from your bottle, 1/3 of the glass is the proper amount and 1/2 is all right: I do not want my guests to feel that I am trying to rush the wine service or force them to order another bottle, plus if you are having Champagne or
white wine it would get warm up too much.
Taste the wine before pouring to the guests, it is an accepted statistic that at least 5% of all bottles are tainted (corked), it will smell musty, “cardboardy”, generally nasty! Remember if this happens, your wine shop (usually) or restaurant will replace it at no cost, provided you have not finished the bottle!!!
So now, just enjoy and remember: “in vino, veritas!”
What wines will I most enjoy and share with my friends during this holiday season?
I have to first consider that we want to be festive, that the temperature is considerably lower than the norm but also that the economy is down the tube and I want to serve good stuff but break the bank. So armed with a thin wallet, but a reveling attitude, here are my recommendations.
Let’s start with the bubbly: we have to crack a bottle or two to bring in the New Year!
Rosé would be my color, the champagne houses have tremendous inventory after record harvests and they are heavily discounting, Henriot, Piper Heidsick, Roederer and Nicholas Feuillatte are some of the affordable rosés you should toast with.
For the white wine lover, I would definitely avoid chardonnays and rather purchase Rhone varietals like Roussane, Marsanne, Grenache, etc., these wines are lighter in weight and their flavors are more mineral, more of winter fruits like pears and apples and fit the season better.
Of course we have to have reds for our roasts and I recommend the spicier wines that will go great with lamb, duck, turkey and game,
Zinfandel and Pinot Noir fill that bill and will not kill your budget.
If you chose a Zin, try to get one that is produced from older vines, it’ll be spicier and have more character, my pick would be a Gamba, a Seghesio or Ridge to name just a few.
If your pick is a Pinot Noir, gravitate to pinots from Santa Lucia Highlands, Sonoma Coast or Oregon’s Willamette Valley, they will exhibit more fruit and better weight. I will recommend a Tantara, Hitching Post, Lucia, Brewer Clifton form Northern California or a Ken Wright, Domaine Serene or Chelalem from Oregon, again, just to name a few: you have to trust your favorite wine merchant once you have given him these parameters.
Do not forget to pick up some dessert wines, after dinner, by the fire relaxing or watching the football games it is always nice to sip on a rich glass of 10 or 20 years old Tawny port from Graham’s or Fonseca, I also cherish a nice Ice Wine from our Canadian cousins: Inniskilin or Domaine Pinnacle (for their apple ice wine).
Voila, armed with this list I believe that you are well prepared to affront the rigors of our Southern California Holiday season and the New Year.
Sulfites and Wine Drinking Myths
In this column, I will try to dispel one of the most irritating and untrue notion about sulfites and wine drinking: too many times have I heard “I cannot drink wine, the sulfites in it give me such a headache!”. A great many experiments have been done on the subject, so not to have to mention a plethora of studies; I’ll just quote one of the researchers, Dr Curtis Ellison an epidemiologist at Boston University School of Medicine. He states “the vast majority (probably 99.9%) of people who get a headache after drinking wine are not suffering because of the sulfites but from other substances in wine, including the alcohol. These people should drink with food; also taking 400mg of Ibuprofen about a half hour before you drink will most of the time prevent a headache”.
In wine the sulfites are present naturally and some are added to prevent bacterial growth and as I write, I vividly remember my dad at spring time, in his vineyard, the copper sulfite apparatus on his back, pumping and spraying away on his vines the light purple mist of the sulfur solution, his outfit, hands and face dyed a bluish tint; or, in the summer, when making his barrels aseptic, shooing us boys away when burning the sulfur wick in the upside down barrels, the acrid smoke and the gun powderlike crackling and sparkling of the wick making for a fascinating scene in the dark cellar…
But, back to science: sulfites are present in most baked goods, canned vegetables, pickled foods, dried fruits and jam and many other foods in addition to wine, as a matter of fact: most wines contain less than 100 parts per million (ppm) of total sulfites, in comparison dried fruits may contain 500 to 1000 ppm.
How often have you heard “I shouldn’t eat those dry fruits -or these pickles-, they give me headache”? !.. To be serious, an extremely small number of people are truly allergic and should be very careful of all these products. For these people, there are a few wines that are made without added sulfites( containing less than 1ppm), but they usually have unusual aromas and are so perishable that they should be refrigerated and consumed within 18 months of their bottling.
Note that wines from around the world contain sulfites, but only when sold in the US do they have to carry on their label “contain sulfites”.
Voila, enough for these darn sulfites, as there is such a great deal of evidence that moderate wine consumption can help us stay healthy.
The virtues of wine far outweighing its negatives:” in the light of the current scientific evidence, it appears that wine drinking can play a role in preventing -or at least in reducing the risk of- a wide range of health hazards”.
For example: studies show that people who consume moderately alcoholic beverages (and particularly wine) have a much lower risk of coronary heart disease than do abstainers; it has also been observed that diabetes occurs less commonly among moderate drinkers than among abstainers and in addition, several other studies document that elderly people who are moderate drinkers, in comparison to non drinkers, have lower risk to develop dementia…
Need I say more? Raise your glass, of red wine, preferably -it has less carbs and calories they say- and toast to the last of winter and remember: “in vino veritas”.
See you at Mille Fleurs or Bertrand at Mister A’s and if you have any questions or comments, give me a call, any week day mornings at 858.756.3113 and please be nice, those sulfites give me a whale of a headache!