Bubbly personality

Posted On December 17, 2009

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Small-batch Champagnes from the source.

The Champagne world has long been dominated by a handful of big-name négociants, who buy grapes from hundreds of small growers and blend them to achieve a consistent house style.

There’s nothing wrong with this practice, of course. But lately, many independent grape growers have begun producing their own bubbly.

Champagnes with a Bubbly Personality

Because the grapes come from their own estates and the wine is made in small batches, “grower” Champagne is often more distinctive and terroir-driven and a great pour for impressing your friends around the festive holidays.

You can identify a grower Champagne by the tiny “RM” on its label (versus “NM” for négociants). Here are a few good ones to try >

Egly-Ouriet Vignes de Vrigny ($53) Pinot Meunier, typically a supporting grape, is the star in this crazy-flavorful gem made solely from the variety (binnys.com)

L. Aubry Fils Rosé ($51) The Aubrey brothers have gained a reputation for their unique and nervy wines, including this seriously sophisticated rosé Champagne (saratogawine.com)

Marc Hebrart Cuvee de Reserve Brut ($43) The village of Mareuil is noted for its distinctive Pinot Noir, the grape that dominates this ripe-yet-racy cuvée (wineaccess.com)

Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Premier Cru Brut ($42) A Chardonnay specialist, Gimonnet takes advantage of its old vines to produce this blanc de blancs. The nonvintage brut is creamy, full and polished (jjbuckley.com)

If your dinner sparkles, why not your wine?

Posted On December 31, 2006

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While it may look and taste as though this holiday pork roast dinner is labor-intensive, you’ll be surprised to find that it takes little time to prepare, and a good part of it can be made in advance.

So with the time you’ve saved, pop open a bottle of sparkling wine to celebrate the season. Some things to know:

• Sparkling white wines are often referred to as Champagne. But only those produced in the Champagne region in northeast France are authorized to use the name spelled with a capital C. Sparkling wines made with similar methods are called spumante in Italy, cava in Spain and vin mousseux in France when coming from any region besides Champagne. Those wines that are made according to the same process as true Champagne indicate “methode champenoise” on the label.

• Sparkling wines can cost less than $10 a bottle and as much as hundreds of dollars. The sweetest are labeled doux; for a less sugary taste, look for demi-sec (drier), sec (dry), extra sec (extra dry) or brut (bone dry).

• You can sip sparkling white wine on its own, or pair it with salty appetizers, seafood or spicy food. These wines should always be served cold preferably in tall, narrow glasses to preserve the bubbles.

Champagne and Mussels > Recipes

The night they invented champagne lasted a long time, about four years. The French would like to take full credit for the creation of sparkling wine, but in fact, they had help from Spain and England.

According to some historians, climate played a role, too, in the creation of champagne. In the 1490s a climate shift brought colder weather into France. The northern Champagne region had competed well with the southern Burgundy area, until cold winters began to affect their vineyards. The late harvested wine stopped fermenting in the casks in the cold weather. Fermentation began again in the warming spring. This double fermentation produced carbon dioxide or bubbles. Thin sparkling wine was not appealing to wine merchants supplying the bustling markets of Paris. Some of the wine was exported to England.

At the same time vineyards in Champagne began to convert from red wine to white wine. The Champagne growers planted vin gris, a red wine grape that produced a pale wine with a grayish tinge. In the late 1660s Dom Pierre Perignon, a Benedictine monk was sent to the Champagne region to be the new cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers, near Rheims. His superiors directed him to eliminate the bubbles from the wine, and to find ways to increase revenue.

As Dom Perignon struggled with his task of subduing effervescence, the English added sugar to white wine and regarded the bubbles as festive. Sparkling wine became a hit at the decadent court of Charles II. Seizing upon this fashionable trend, Dom Perignon reversed himself and began to experiment with making more bubbles. He had problems controlling fermentation. Perignon bottled the wine, allowing it to ferment a second time in the bottle, instead of the cask. Much later the French patented the technique, calling it methode champenoise.

Advanced knowledge of science allowed succeeding wine makers to exert control over the fermentation. Don Perignon’s champagne batches were hit and miss. Some years he lost up to 90 percent of his production due to exploding casks and bottles. This added to the rarity and expense of the wine.
While he could not completely control the process, Perignon realized that changing the bottles in use at the time might help reduce breakage. The thin-walled, apple shaped bottles with long narrow necks could not withstand the pressure of the fizzing champagne at ninety pounds per square inch. Don Pernignon convinced the growing glass-manufacturing business in the area to make thicker bottles in the classic pear shape we recognize today. The old stoppers made of chestnut wood, dipped in tallow, could not stand up to the pressure either, so Don Perignon turned to Spain to provide him with corks.

Don Perignon is also credited with being one of the first wine makers to blend wines. A fellow Benedictine cellar master at a nearby abbey adopted his blends emphasizing clarity and complexity, along with his methods of fermentation. He continued Perignon’s custom of adding a liqueur de tirage just before bottling to insure a second fermentation. Today wine makers’ liqueur de tirage includes sugar, wine and yeast.

In a book published in 1718, Canon Jean Godinot claimed he’d obtained Dom Perignon’s liqueur de tirage recipe, a bottle of wine, a pound of sugar, 5-6 pitted peaches, powdered nutmeg and cinnamon and a half bottle of good brandy. The mixture was boiled, strained and boiled again.

Many recipes using champagne were published around the same time. Francois Massialot suggested a fish dish, browning fillets in butter and mushrooms, adding a half bottle of champagne and then thickening with a crayfish coulis. Sounds delicious.

The champagne craze drove prices up wildly. In Paris a bottle might sell for nearly $400. King Louis XIV’s court insisted on champagne for their elaborate parties and the English court also continued their infatuation with the bubbly beverage. Champagne became known as the wine of kings. Even today champagne continues to be the drink in demand for festive occasions. Almost half of all champagne sold is purchased between Thanksgiving and New Years’ according to wine maven Lisa Shea.

I found some of the details on the invention of champagne in a book by Joan De Jane, “The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication and Glamour.” It was the best history book I read in 2005, full of fun facts, serious scholarship and beautifully written. A must for fashionistas and Francophiles.

I also recommend Lisa Shea’s website, Wineintro.com. Lisa has compiled an amazing collection of champagne recipes. I liked Carol Channing’s champagne cocktail and the Chambord raspberry-flavored champagne, a twist on the Bellini with a fresh raspberry in the bottom of the glass.

King Louis XIV served his champagne in flutes. About 20 years ago, the old-fashioned flute finally eclipsed the wide, low coupe glasses that came into fashion in the 1800s. If you stay in on New Year’s Eve, rent “Gigi”, sip from your flute, and let Maurice Chevalier remind you “the night they invented champagne… no man or woman has ever been as happy as we are tonight.” Happy New Year!

In “Everyday Dining With Wine”, master sommelier Andrea Immer suggests a one-plate meal or a festive first course of mussels and champagne. She writes, “The crispness of the wine brings out the briny-sweet taste of the shellfish” Andrea Immer’s complete wine course on DVD is available on her web site at andreaimmer.com

Champagne-steamed Mussels

Ingredients >
2 pounds mussels
2 tablespoons unsalted mussels
1/2 cup sourdough pretzel crumbs, crushed in a blender or food processor
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 plum tomatoes, cored and chopped
1 cup champagne
1/2 cup fish stock or bottled clam juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chervil or tarragon

Method >
* Clean the mussels by scrubbing their shells with a brush while rinsing under cold running water. If necessary, use a paring knife to tug and cut out the weedy beards coming out of the bottom of the shells. Pick through the mussels and discard any with broken or open shells that won’t close when you tap them.
* Heat l tablespoon of butter in a small skillet over medium-high heat. When the foam subsides and the butter just begins to brown add the crushed pretzels and toss to coat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring until the crumbs are crisped, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
* Heat a large dry skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mussels, shallot, garlic, and tomatoes and stir to combine. Cook for 2 minutes and then add the champagne and the fish stock. Continue cooking until the shells open, about another 4 minutes. Transfer the mussels to serving bowls with a slotted spoon and continue to simmer the liquid to reduce it slightly, scraping up any bits stuck to the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.
* Remove the pan from the heat and swirl in the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Stir in the chervil. Pour the broth over the mussels, sprinkle pretzel crumbs over each portion and serve immediately. Serves six as a first course.

Recommended champagne to pair with steamed mussels: Friexenet Carta Nevada or Paul Cheaneau Brut

Important note on storage: Do not store mussels in airtight containers or in water. They must breathe. Cover lightly with wet towel, stored in mesh type bag. Purchase mussels the same day you plan to cook them or store overnight in refrigerator.


Toasting wines > some choices

Posted On December 30, 2006

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Here’s a round of stellar wine choices to toast the New Year. The focus is on sparkling wines, ranging from the reigning Champagne champions and standouts to smaller, lesser known growers like Chartogne-Taillet.

Duval-Leroy Brut Champagne NV > A big, full-bodied bubbly, featuring graphite, toast, lemon and nut aromas and flavors. Balanced, with an assertive finish. Will improve with a few months of cellaring. Drink now through 2009. 35,000 cases made.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Champagne Reserve NV > Plenty of graphite and honey flavors mark this well-structured, effusive Champagne. Lemon, dough and vanilla accents are also present. Finishes with a tactile sensation around the gums. Drink now through 2010.

Domaine Carneros Brut Carneros 2003 > Graceful and complex, with fresh cherry, spice and citrus aromas and impeccably balanced and well-structured flavors that emphasize creamy toastiness. The finish fans out and lingers, turning delicate and fleshy. Drink now through 2009. 30,000 cases made.

Moet & Chandon Brut Champagne Blanc 1999 > Fragrant, delivering plenty of toast, butter, vanilla and citrus aromas and flavors, backed by a gossamer frame and a supple mousse. Fine length. Not for the long haul but delicious now. Drink now through 2010.

Taittinger Brut Champagne La Francaise NV > Shows elegance and finesse but also an understated power as the initial richness gives way to the firm structure, setting the stage for biscuit, honey and ginger notes. Fine length. Drink now through 2010.

Bollinger Brut Champagne Special Cuvee NV > Compact and yeasty, this bubbly evokes bread dough and grapefruit flavors backed by verve and a chalky texture. It has a fine mousse and a lingering finish. Drink now through 2010. 20,000 cases imported.

Chartogne-Taillet Blanc de Blancs Champagne NV > Crisp, light and airy, yet with everything in the right proportion. Vibrant and focused, showing ginger, lemon and mineral elements. Perhaps a tad on the sweet side but balanced overall. Drink now.

Gloria Ferrer Brut Sonoma County Sonoma NV > A delicious mouthful of bubbly. Smooth, rich and creamy, revealing layers of black cherry, vanilla and ginger, with a hint of lemon drop. Finishes with a long, refreshing aftertaste of mineral and fruit. Drink now. 93,500 cases made.

Mumm Napa Brut Napa Valley Prestige NV > Enticing vanilla, floral and fresh bread dough aromas. Lean, firm, intense and focused on the palate, with a beam of citrus, apple and pear notes. Cleansing aftertaste. Drink now through 2009. 180,000 cases made.

Lucien Albrecht Brut Blanc de Blancs Cremant d’Alsace NV > A hint of pencil shavings and citrus flavors mark this appealing cremant. Light- to medium-bodied, with good intensity and length. Drink now. 3,000 cases imported.

The ever-effervescent Champagne

Posted On December 30, 2006

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Make it your resolution to try more champagnes throughout the year. Champagne is perfectly married to special occasions, including New Year’s, weddings, engagement parties, birthdays and dinner parties.

“It’s relatively expensive, which is why champagne is reserved for celebrations,” explains Jamie Wolff, owner of Chambers Street Wines in Manhattan. “However, prices for champagne are near the same as a good bottle of wine. Champagne is great with food, as the tart aspect goes well with rich dishes.”

Le Method Champenois > While the French monk Dom Perignon certainly contributed to advances in champagne’s production, he is mistakenly credited with inventing the beverage. No one is quite sure who first discovered the drink, some uphold that it was created by accident, though its first appearance was around 1535 in Languedoc, a former province of France.

The name Champagne was legally protected under the Treaty of Madrid in 1891 to signify only sparkling wine produced in its namesake region, a mild northern province in France. This right was even reaffirmed in the Treaty of Versailles following World War I.

Other bubbly wines not from the Champagne region sometimes use the term “sparkling wine” on their label. Some producers even use the term methode champenois, meaning “champagne method.” But regardless of whether they use Chardonnay, Meunier or Pinot Noir grapes, these wines cannot be called champagne unless those grapes were grown in the Champagne region and processed in the traditional method.

Only this region can produce the wine because the grapes used for Champagne need to be grown in an area where climate conditions favor a short growing season. The grapes can therefore be picked earlier, when sugar levels are lower and acid levels higher, yielding the unique flavor profile.

The fermentation of the grapes follows the same path as any other wine. First, carbon dioxide resulting from the transformation of sugar into alcohol is allowed to escape. This is when the blend, or cuvee, is assembled, using wines from various years to create a consistent product.

“A blend of different years is necessary because it permits the producer to maintain a consistent style,” Wolff says. “If you buy a bottle tomorrow, it will taste the same as one you tasted two years ago.”

The blended wine is then put in bottles along with yeast and a small amount of sugar and finally, corked.

Champagne’s effervescent quality is born out of the secondary fermentation, during which the bottles are stored horizontally in a wine cellar. The carbon dioxide formed in this process becomes trapped inside the bottle, keeping it dissolved in the wine. The amount of added sugar will determine the amount of pressure inside the bottle.

The champagne is then aged for a span of a year and a half to three years, after which the bottles are rotated a small amount each day and gradually moved toward a vertical position in a process called riddling.

Related Links > http://www.chambersstwines.com

Champange > the noble one

Posted On December 29, 2006

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Or else “drinking the stars…” as alleged by its spiritual father Brother Dom Perignon. Reference of course to the world famous, most noble of all carbonated wines, Champagne!

The Festive Season is filled with Celebration Days, or else Champagne Days, and it is no coincidence that a “cork is popped” every time we want to announce a joyous occasion. Happy occasions? Not so much for almighty Napoleon, a personal friend of Jean-Remy Moet. Forgetting to renew his order of the noble wine, somewhere around 1814, cost him, what else, his defeat in Waterloo!

If one wishes to hear the “duchess sigh”, one needs to abandon the brute habit of crudely ejecting the cork, after having shaken her violently, making a horrendous noise.

This is better understood when one observes (in awe, no doubt) the process of “swording” a champagne bottle, the ritual of “sabrage du Champange” never before has “decapitation” been so elegant!

Her homeland is France and her natural abode is the northernmost vineyard,  around Reims,  150 km northeast of Paris. There, stretch 345.000 acres of vineyards in a chalky ground with limestone that combined with frost and low temperatures bless her with unique exquisiteness.

Responsible for the creation of the first carbonated wine, is Benedict Monk Dom Pérignon who experienced a rather unpleasant event. In the beginning of the 18th century, in one of the dark cellars of Hautviller, temperatures fell so low that fermentation was interrupted, it continued inside the bottle. Pressure caused the “eruption” of the cork and  voila, the first champagne!

There are more than 250.000.000 ticklish bubbles in every bottle of 750ml, exactly due to CO2.

Since then, the noble white Chardonnay offers its finesse, the red Pinot noir adds to the body and the Pinot menieur ensures quantity!

Her creation is so complex, that it actually explains the high price!  It involves double fermentation, a classical white wine processing and a second one in the bottle. The secret of every great house, however, is in the “brew”, the chef de caves are the specialised tasters who achieve this.

There are various great house and famous are the “widows” that rule them, like Cliquot, Posardin, Lily Bollinger, Οrly Roederer as well as the widow of Nonancout that leads the famous house of Laurent Perrier.

Other great houses are: Krug, Moët et Chandon, Mumm, Heidsieck, Deutz, Taittinger, Pol Roger. Which ever one you choose, search insistently for the year 1990, the best in this decade and enjoy in luxury.


Posted On December 17, 2006

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My father had a unique approach to opening a bottle of Champagne. He’d hem and haw, grit his teeth, mutter to himself and break out in a light sweat. All this before he’d even touched the bottle.

After being treated to this demonstration every Christmas, it became clear to my siblings and me that while it was amusing to watch my father, someone else should learn to perform this task.

Now, after years of being reasonably adept at opening bottles of sparkling wine, it seems to me that it has much in common with training an alpha male dog. As any competent dog whisperer will tell you: You must be the master. As long as the dog learns this, he will give years of loyalty and joy and few, if any, instances of drawing blood. So, here goes with our training and ultimate mastering of the alpha wine bottle.

1. Remember that this most social and celebratory of wines comes in a bottle under approximately as much pressure as a truck tire. The pressure is the result of the carbon dioxide created during the process of fermentation. And, just as any sociable, spirited pup wants to break loose and tear up the draperies, so is this wine just itching to burst from its restraints.

2. Don’t open the bottle until it is well-chilled, between 45 and 55 degrees. Remember that the glass is thicker on these bottles and the contents take longer to chill. Set the chilled bottle firmly on the counter before you. Now, open the door to its “crate” by removing the foil wrapper at the top of the bottle.

3. Making no sudden or jerky movements, pick up a napkin or dishtowel, fixing the bottle with a steady look. Approach without hesitation. Any trepidation on your part will only provide amusement to those who are watching and draw contempt from the bottle.

4. Cover the top of the bottle with the napkin, and grasp it by the neck, tipping the bottle away from yourself and bracing the bottom of the bottle against your body. The bottle now knows you intend to be in control. Next, pull down the wire tab, untwist it and loosen the wire cage. Or take the cage off, but keep the bottle tipped away from you and any onlookers.

5. Just as a good Labrador Retriever’s doggie motto is “no fear,” so should yours be now. Still keeping a firm grasp on the cork, slowly twist the bottle, not the cork. Let the gas in the bottle begin its slow escape as it gradually pushes the cork out of the bottle.

6. Some champagne corks are simply going to be harder to open than others. At times you might be tempted to discard the towel and just wrestle with the cork, showing anger and irritation in the process (analogous to kicking the dog). It means the bottle has won and will eventually let loose its cork with an explosive “pop” and even perhaps gush out wine.

You may think this is ever so much more fun. If so, then go ahead and pour that wine all over your guests’ heads, pretending your team just won the NBA championship.

Ah, but if the cork comes out with a breathy, gentle sound, you have prevailed. This is a good, well-behaved wine that hasn’t gone to waste, one that will bring joy and contentment to your friends, and won’t wet the carpet.

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