Category Archives: Champagne

Annual Top Wine Lists

This is the time of year when wine journalists put together lists of “top” wines of the past year. To quote a few:

  • We rated no less than 20 perfect wines after tasting more than 10,000 bottles …
  • Perhaps this column should more accurately be titled the twelve most enjoyable wines of 2016…
  • Here’s our definitive 2016 list of the top 50 bottles …
  • As the year winds down, we can’t help but reflect on our favorite wines of 2016 …
  • After tasting nearly 4,000 bottles in the past 12 months, our wine critic pays tribute …

It’s a tradition and, unfortunately, most wines aren’t available. Unless the wine critic is familiar to you, use their ratings as a guideline. Know and trust your own palate.

Top wines from small production wineries rarely make it to the grocery store shelves. They just don’t make enough product to keep a shelf presence year round. So, traveling to Woodinville, Eastern Washington, Willamette Valley or California may be an option.

For unavailable wines, put them on your watch list and see what the next vintage brings. Lists of high scoring wines can be instructional about good vintages, cool climates and emerging regions.

One last thought when perusing annual wine lists. If a critic tastes 10,000 wines a year, that’s an average of 27 bottles per day. That critic needs help, so it may be a “collective palate” judging that $45 bottle of wine. And that collective palate, made up of several tasters, could change over the year.

And now at last, my 2016 list …

It’s a list heavy with sunny Spain’s top grape varieties, Garnacha and Tempranillo. Spanish wines are perfect for great wines at a small price. Even Gran Riserva Riojas are only about $40.

Borsao Tres Picos Garnacha 2014 is made from old vines; it’s my unfailing favorite. This purple red Grenache from the Campo de Borja region has a gorgeous aroma and flavors of raspberries and spice. It’s imported by consultant Jorge Ordonez who seeks out old vines and well made Spanish wines.

Solnia Tempranillo 2015 is crafted in the land of Don Quixote, La Mancha. The old vine Tempranillo grapes are hand harvested. From the deep color of the wine, you can tell it went through a long ferment and maceration. Aged for six months to give it further complexity, the wine is balanced and very drinkable at $10. Also imported by Jorge Ordonez.

From the Toro region, Enebral Tinta de Toro 2009 is made by the Well Oiled Wine Company.  Tinta de Toro is a clone of Tempranillo. Enebral’s vineyards are old and yield very low production. Also harvested by hand, the wine sees French oak for 11 months, then matured in bottle for six months before release. You can tell Toro is a warm region with an alcohol content of 14.5% and you’ll be amazed at the color and balance of this wine – for only $12.

Tinto Pesquera Crianza Ribera del Duero 1999 is another all-time favorite andtinto pesquera one I had been hoarding for some time. Crianza is a term used to describe the style of Spanish wine. It’s an aging regimen and describes the youngest category of a wine that has been matured in wood.  A crianza may not be sold until its third year from harvest and spends a minimum of six months in barrique.

Gotin del Risc Mencia 2012 hails from the Bierzio region. Mencia is a red grape variety widely grown in Northwest Spain. It’s a very fragrant grape with glass staining capabilities. It’s rich but not overpowering. Think paella partner for $15.

Atlas Peak Renegade 2013 is amazing. Atlas Peak is also an American Viticultural Area located within the Napa Valley AVA. It’s one of the higher elevations in Napa. The westward orientation also extends the amount of direct sunlight to ripen grape sugars. The soil is volcanic and very porous which means cool evenings for perfect pH. The 2013 Renegade is composed of 93% Syrah, 4% Malbec and 3% Petit Verdot. This wine is loaded with aromas of dark berries, violets, and tobacco leaf. Aged for 22 months in French and American oak barrels, the flavors are lush with dark fruits, leather and spice.

The Stoller Reserve Pinot Noir 2013 is one of the best Oregon Pinots and reasonably priced. From the best vineyard blocks and French barrels (30% new) in the cellar, it’s aged ten months and then blended prior to bottling. What comes out of the bottle is an marvelous balance of cherries and baking spices with a long, long finish.

Bill Stoller worked on the family farm as a child but as an adult he knew that the rocky terrain that broke discs and plows when tilled, the southern-sloped hills that made growing wheat difficult and the low-yielding Jory soils were all the ingredients of a successful vineyard. Today, the family vineyards are planted with Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Tempranillo, Syrah, and Pinot Blanc.

Intrinsic Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 made two publications’ Top 100 lists. This is the first release from this winery. Part of the wine was aged for a remarkable nine months on the skins, another part in stainless steel and the rest in neutral oak. The label claims, “It dazzles with brooding aromas of herbs and black cherry. The flavors are ripe and balanced with smooth tannins and a long finish.” Dazzles and brooding aside, I’m inclined to agree, found it reasonably priced and still available.

Another gem from the cellar was the Long Shadows Pedestal Columbia Valley Merlot 2004. Long Shadows collaborates with highly regarded winemakers around the world. They use Washington grapes to make wine like they do back home. It’s fascinating to taste a Washington wine next to another country’s wine.

For this wine it’s Michel Rolland, owner of Le Bon Pasteur in Pomerol and consultant to many others. Let me just name drop here – L’Angelus, Clinet, Smith Haut Lafitte, Pavie and Troplong Mondot in Bordeaux; Simi, Newton, Merryvale and Harlan in California. He has even consulted at Ornellaia in Tuscany and Casa Lapostolle in Chile. Pedestal has pedigree.

Bollinger RD (recently disgorged) 1985 was a pretty amazing bottle. Golden, aromatic and full-bodied, it didn’t have a lot of bubbles but I fully expected it to not be sparkling. I love Madame Bollinger, who would make her daily vineyard inspections in the 1950s by bicycle wearing a dress, a flower in her hair and her pearls.

She once quipped of her Champagne, “I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.”  cork wreath

Cheers and All the Best in this New Year!

Wines Under Pressure

Much like a bottle of bubbly, the holiday season contains a lot of pressure.bolly

However, sparkling wine has the kind of pressure I can live with! The result of a process that Dom Perignon spent years working on, bubbles are created by the yeast cozying up to the sugars in a closed environment. After this second fermentation, carbon dioxide is dissolved in the wine and held under pressure until the cork is popped. The wine is converted from still to sparkling and the occasion is transformed from ordinary to special.

Almost all sparkling wines have one thing in common. They go through two fermentations, one to make the alcohol and one to make the bubbles. The significant difference between the two fermentations is the first allows the gas to escape which produces the alcohol and the other traps the gases in the bottle and Voila! tiny bubbles!

Sparkling wines vary significantly. They can be white, pink or red. They can be bone dry (brut), sort of dry (extra brut), off dry (demi sec, semi secco) or sweet (doux or dolce). It can have varying degrees of alcohol (5.5% to 13%). The size and persistency of the bubbles and the foam differ significantly too.

The most famous sparkling wine comes from a region in northeast France called Champagne. Champagne produces about a tenth of the world’s sparkling wines. It’s the gold standard for sparkling wines.

According to the rules, Champagne must be made with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. With the addition of a little yeast and a little sugar, the second fermentation occurs in the bottle with a crown cap to trap the gases. After remuage, where the dead yeast cells are shaken down into the neck of the bottle that are stored neck down in racks, the plugs of dead yeast cells are quickly expelled in a process called dégorgement. Disgorging involves little more than removing the crown cap and watching the plug fly, propelled by the pressure in the bottle.

The final steps are to top up with wine and a teaspoon to a quarter cup of simple syrup called dosage. The amount of sugar in the dosage determines whether the wine is brut, extra dry, demi sec or doux. The cork, bale and foil are put in place, the label pasted on and it is boxed for shipment.

Other regions in the world also make Champagne-like wines. California is an outpost for Champagne firms who have run out of space in Champagne. You may have seen or sipped Roederer Estate (Roederer), Chandon (Moet & Chandon), Domaine Carneros (Taittinger), Maison Duetz (Duetz), Piper Sonoma (Piper Heidsieck) and/or Mumm Napa (Mumm).

The presence of these French Champagne houses certainly sets a high standard, however, there are challenges. Champagne is a cooler region than many of the California AVAs.  Carneros and Anderson Valley tend to be cooler than say, Napa or the San Joaquin Valley. The French have adapted their methods to produce wonderful sparkling wines that are a quarter of the price of their French cousins.

The trick is to be cool like some parts of Oregon or harvest the grapes earlier than grapes used for a still wine. Oregon’s premier producer is Argyle winery in Dundee. And Soter Vineyards. Argyle has been growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir since 1987 and Soter started in California in the 1990s before moving to Carlton, Oregon. Both make wonderful Blanc de Blancs and Brut Rosé.

Washington has some great premium sparkling wines even without the presence of a “Champagne outpost”. One of my favorites is Treveri made by a couple who have been on the Washington wine scene since the early 80s.

Juergen Grieb was born and raised in Trier, Germany. He perfected his winemaking skills in the Ruwer Valley. After moving to the United States, he made wine for Langguth Winery in the early 80s.

The Juergen and Julie Grieb opened the doors to Treveri in 2010.  All their wines sparkle and are made from traditional French and German grape varietals. The grapes are picked early at around 19 brix, which is fairly typical when making a sparkling wine in a warmer region, any higher will result in too high an alcohol content with two fermentations.

They make a Blanc de Noir, Blanc de Blanc, a Rosé which is aged 24 months, and a Gewurztraminer which has extended tirage. It’s disgorged on demand to keep the product fresh. Like many of the Australian “Black Bubbles” Treveri Cellars’ Syrah is a deep red color from the Syrah.

They have a Bubble Club too. Members get 2 bubblies 3 times a year and complimentary glass of sparkling wine during release parties. This would be a perfect gift for that sparkling wine lover.

Other Washington sparklers include Domaine Michelle and Mountain Dome out of Spokane which produces sparkling wines in the “Méthode Champenoise” or the traditional method. Mountain Dome is a family operation in a geodesic dome in the shadow of Mount Spokane. They’ve been making bubbles since 1984.

Other regions to explore are Burgundy, Alsace, Spanish cavas, Prosecco from Italy, New York’s Finger Lakes and don’t forget those black bubbles from Australia.
cork wreath
Share a little sparkle with your family and friends this holiday season! Wishing you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! While many will enjoy a special bottle and splendid dinner to ring in the New Year, the pop of a cork and all those delicious tiny bubbles will be part of the celebration too. bubbly

Champagne is an enigma, a white wine made from primarily red grapes. The actual invention of champagne is often attributed to a Benedictine Monk by the name of Dom Pérignon. Which is not exactly accurate, he didn’t invent Champagne, he refined it. Among his many refinements was the perfect stopper for the wine previously known as “devil’s brew” since it kept exploding and sending the rags flying.  You see, before the cork and bale, the monks used rags to stopper the wine, hence the flying rags.

As in most regions in France, the Champagne region was first planted to the vine by the Romans. Later the monks took over the vineyards, the winemaking and nursing the community with wine – a healthier option than water at the time.  Wine and beer for that matter, were drunk by everyone, kings and commoners.

Champagne’s glamorous lifestyle began back in 1429. That’s when the first French king was crowned in Rheims Cathedral. Of course, Champagne was served as part of festivities and for every coronation thereafter. Other rulers saw the stars, Czar Nicholas ordered his Roederer Cristal by the boatload and we all know that Napoleon would arrive at Moet y Chandon for a tipple of Dom Pérignon before riding off to his next military campaign.

Today, there are 86,500 acres of vineyards producing 200 million bottles of Champagne every year. The increased demand for Champagne, combined with the meticulous process of production, from véraison to aging in vast cellars, has resulted in Champagne as a symbol of prestige and celebration all over the world.

It’s the attention to detail that makes Champagne one of the world’s most sought after beverages. That and the soil, the grapes, the climate and the labor intensive winemaking that make this wine so fine.

The method of making Champagne or Méthode Champenoise is complicated and long. And starts with the usual alcoholic fermentation. The wine then undergoes a second fermentation inside the bottle. Making the wine sparkling is the primary reason for this but along the way aromatics develop in concert with those tiny bubbles.

By law, the harvested grapes must have enough sugar to produce 10 to 11 percent alcohol. Champagne is the only region that does not permit mechanical harvesting. Every single grape is picked by hand. Thousands of hands from all over France descend upon Champagne at harvest time. Picking starts at dawn and avoids the excessive sun at midday to avoid spontaneous fermentation.

Then the grapes are brought to the press room which is usually very close to the vineyards. This first pressing is, of course, the best. It’s the cleanest with no color or tannins from the skin or seeds. The statutory level for the first press is 8,800 pounds of grapes, with a maximum 670 gallons collected. A second compression is allowed and provides 130 gallons.

Fermentation vats are predominantly stainless steel with a few oak barrels of various sizes scattered here and there around the region. When the wine has finished the first fermentation, sometime in March or April, the assemblage begins. This is the winemaker’s most challenging task, tasting the blends of the different wines from different vats to find the ones that will make up that final house blend.

To the final blend, a liqueur de tirage is added. The tirage is a blend of carefully constructed wine, sugar and yeast. This is the stuff that will ensure those tiny bubbles. Once the tirage is added, the bottle is capped, and taken to the cellar and placed in pupitres which are wooden racks with holes in them. The bottles are placed at an angle so the top is down and the punt end is up.

Champagne-RemuerA remuer rotates every bottle with a quick one quarter turn at least four times a day to shake the spent yeast down into the neck of the bottle. Remuers are being replaced by machines in the larger cellars but the technique is important to the making of Champagne. This goes on for about 18 months.

The last major step is disgorgement and corking the bottle. To disgorge the dead yeast cells in the bottle, the top of the bottle neck is frozen and the bottle cap removed.  All the pressure that has built up sends the plug of spent yeast cells flying.

The next step, the wine has its final dosage, another sugar and wine solution, and then it is corked. The bale holds the cork in place. The label goes on, it’s boxed up and distributed throughout the world to celebrate births, weddings, birthdays, Mother’s Day, promotions, ship launches, the Seahawks repeating, and ringing in every New Year.

As you’ve read, Champagne is complex and celebratory.  Many books have been written about its deliciousness. My favorite is by Don & Petie Kaldstrup, Champagne, How the world’s most glamorous wine triumphed over war and hard times. It’s highly entertaining and solves the mystery of why there are so many Champagne houses with German and Dutch surnames.

Cheers to you! May your New Year be bright and bubbly!

Weekly wind defined: Sparkling wine

Mary writes:

Notice how we’ve been on a sparkling wine kick as of late? It seems we just can’t quite get those bubbles out of our heads.

This week’s definition is quite simple: Sparkling Wine.

Sparkling wines have significant levels of carbon dioxide which translates to those tiny bubbles that tickle your tongue. A second natural fermentation in a bottle, called méthode champenoise, produces sparkling wines.

Champagne is a sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France. Every other French sparkling wine made outside the borders of Champagne is a Mousseux or Crémant.

The more common Crémants are from Burgundy where the same grapes that grow in Champagne are grown in Burgundy. Other areas that produce Crémant from other grapes are Bordeaux (Semilion), Alsace (Pinot Gris), Loire (Chenin Blanc) and  Limoux (Mauzac).

Weekly wine defined: Perlage

Brynn writes:

If you Google (or Bing, whichever search engine you prefer) the word Perlage you’ll find an assortment of search results, some in English, others Italian.

Simply put, perlage means bubbles. But the Internet search also called up a few commercial entities that are capitalizing on the name, using it to sell a wine-saving device that restores CO2 to an opened bottle of bubbly. According to one site, if you open a bottle and can’t finish it, you don’t have to worry about it going flat. Just use their product to fill the headspace of the bottle with pressurized CO2 which helps retain the bubbles and keep oxygen from making the wine go flat.

Supposedly the wine stays good for up to 14 days. Sounds similar to the Vin-Vac that allows you to pump out unwanted air from a bottle of wine to preserve it for longer periods. We have a couple of those and they do a great job.

The next time you’re drinking bubbly, if you want to sound smart make a comment about how superb the wine’s “perlage” is.

Weekly wine defined: Riddling

Last week we defined Méthode Champenoise.

This week we define a term that was used in that definition: Riddling.

To make good wine using the Méthode Champenoise, bottles must be riddled. While the second fermentation is creating those tiny bubbles in the bottle, it also produces sediment. That sediment needs to be removed from the wine and is disgorged after it is riddled into the neck of the bottle by riddlers, who by the way, are no threat to Batman.

What the Ridler does is give a shake and a turn to each bottle in a special rack known as a pupitre, over a period of several weeks until the bottle is upside down and all the sediment is in the neck. Once done totally by hand, gyropalettes now perform this essential procedure.

Weekly wine defined: Methode Champenoise

Méthode Champenoise is the process of making a sparkling wine with the same method used in the cellars of Champagne, France.

It’s a secondary fermentation inside the bottle that creates those tiny bubbles we all love so much. All Champagne and most high-quality sparkling wine is made by this process.

Sparkling wine starts out as a still wine, either red or white. And then it is blended usually to produce a consistent house cuveé.

The next step is to add the dosage which is more sugar and yeast. The bottle is capped not corked and put in a riddling rack on its side neck down.

For the next two to four years, the riddler’s job is to turn each and every bottle a quarter turn four times a day. The action shakes the spent yeast cells down into the neck of the bottle.

Weekly wine defined: Growers Champagne

Brynn writes:

While interviewing David LeClaire, co-owner and general manager of Seattle’s Wine World, for the article we wrote on what sparkling wines to serve for New Years, he asked if I knew the term “Grower Champagne”?

Nope.

Since it’s a term I’d not heard before, I’m guessing it’s one you might not know either. So I’ll define it.

Grower champagne: This is the wine made by champagne houses that is artisanal compared to than the mass production of the product that pops up on our grocery store shelves. Terroir is the focus of these wines — the growers that own the vineyards source the grapes for the wine from a single village, instead of combining the juice from grapes grown across the region.

These wines will be different every year based on the growing conditions, whereas the mass produced wine from the region will be consistently similar year after year. Grower champagnes are released younger than those that come from the larger Champagne houses, likely because the smaller entities don’t have the money to store the wine and age it.

LeClaire described the grower champagnes as having the most character. He said they are “perfect for the enthusiast, for someone who wants to try something new. This is for the geeks.” These wines won’t be found at Fred Meyer or Safeway, you’ll need to go into a quality wine shop. Prices start around $40. LeClaire said his favorites include Gaston Chiquet and Theirry Triolet.

Sparkling suggestions for New Year’s Eve

By now you’ve probably secured your New Year’s Eve plans, but have you finalized what you’ll be drinking?

If you’re like most Americans, Champagne — sparkling wine if it’s made in America, Prosecco if it’s from Italy, or cava if from Spain — is not something you drink every day.

Instead it’s reserved for special occasions, like New Year’s Eve. (Incidentally, in Italy and Spain people drink their sparklers on a daily basis, much like most Seattleites drink coffee every day).

Seeing as we’re not in Italy or Spain, chances are you don’t drink Champagne (or sparkling wine, Prosecco, cava, et al.) except for once or twice a year. If that’s the case, the thought of selecting a bottle, or two, or three, to ring in the New Year may not top your list of favorite things to do.

That’s where we come in. We called David LeClaire, founder and general manager of Wine World and Spirits, located just off Interstate-5 in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. LeClaire is also a certified sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Needless to say, he knows wine.

So what does LeClaire recommend for this year’s celebration? That depends on what you’re looking for, he said.

If you’re planning a party for a number of guests (read: wide range of palates and likes and dislikes), LeClaire recommends serving Italy’s Prosecco.

“Prosecco, to me, is one of the best toasting Champagnes you can get,” he said.

The price is nice too — typically a Prosecco in the $9 to $10 range is going to be good. And it’s widely available.

This wine is favorable for large groups because it has a touch more sweetness to it, without being too sweet. Usually it’s liked by everyone.

If dry wine is more your style, consider cava over France’s Champagne. It’s cheaper, while still a quality wine.

General rule of thumb: look for wines in the $10 range, LeClaire said. Anything below $10 may cause you to regret your purchase, especially if you overindulge this year. That’s because sparkling wines in the $6 range have likely been injected with carbon dioxide, which produces the bubbles and often the headache.

“The saying is: The bigger the bubbles, the bigger the headache,’” LeClaire said.

The smaller the bubbles, the better the wine. During fermentation wine produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct of yeast eating sugar in the grape juice. For non-sparkling wine gas is allowed to escape; to make it tingle on your tongue, the gas is kept in the bottle, producing the bubbles.

If you’re looking for bubbly from France, but don’t want to pay the markup on a wine from Champagne, consider one from the Alsace region that straddles France and Germany.

These wines are available in the $15 price range and are very elegant, LeClaire said. Unlike Champagne, which is made from chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, Alsatian sparklers are made with Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, producing a softer wine. One brand to look for is Lucien Albrecht, which retails between $15 to $20.

A handful of Washington and Oregon wineries also have jumped into the sparkling pool. That includes Yakima’s Treveri Cellars, which was featured in 2011 at the White House for its State Department holiday receptions and was served earlier this year at the James Beard Foundation dinner. Treveri specializes in sparkling wines, offering Pinot Gris, riesling, Gewürztraminer, chardonnay and even Syrah. You can find most of its wines between $14 and $19.

If all this talk about bubbles has your head spinning — and you haven’t even had a sip yet! — don’t stress. Go to your local wine shop or grocery store and ask the wine steward for help. If you’re in Seattle, stop by Wine World, they’ve got wines you won’t find anywhere else, and staff eager to help.

Tell the steward how much you want to spend, what you typically drink and let them do the work. As LeClaire pointed out, most people who ask for advice will walk away with a better wine than what they would have selected on their own.

Weekly wine defined: Punt

To punt or not to punt, that is the question.

Punt is an option in football. It could be getting a sticky problem off your desk and onto some other desk, or as it relates to wine, it is the indentation found in the base of a bottle, particularly those holding sparkling wine.

The reason for the punt is to take the pressure off the sides of the bottle. Sparkling wine is under an enormous amount of pressure, anywhere from 60 to 90 pounds per square inch.

The depth of the punt can sometimes relate to quality, with better quality wines having a deeper punt. In wine circles, we call it good glass.