Earlier this year I visited the Champagne region at harvest time, and I've enjoyed tasting several different Champagnes in the months since. At the same time, I explored the current range of American fizz for my December article in Washingtonian magazine. Just as the finest Champagnes are a complex expression of the place, soil and time they are made, some top U.S. sparkling wine producers are focusing on specific appellations and achieving top quality. Which areas are top for U.S. bubbly? Think Carneros, Green Valley, Russian River Valley, Anderson Valley - and one you probably don't know yet: Carter's Mountain.
Details in WineLine #63, now available on dmwineline.com.
Cheers, and Happy New Year!
When buying a champagne or sparkling wine this holiday season, consider disgorgement.
No, that’s not a spam e-mail offering you paradise in bed, but an important phase in making sparkling wines by the traditional champagne method. These wines undergo a second fermentation in the bottle – the process that gives them the bubbles – and are “disgorged” to remove the yeasts and add a dosage of sweetened wine to finish the overall product. Most fizz producers don’t tell you when the bottle was disgorged.
Should you care?
Yes, especially if you're buying a non-vintage blend, the style that accounts for most sparkling wine produced in the world, including champagne. Non-vintage bubblies contain juice from two or three vintages blended to produce a consistent house style and the label does not specify a vintage year. Veuve Cliquot yellow label Brut is an example of a popular “NV” (for non-vintage) blend. When you pay $40 for this wine, you would expect it to be as good as the wine you bought last year.
But there are two reasons why it won’t be identical. First, even non-vintage blends are subject to vintage variation. A particularly hot, ripe year, such as 2003, will influence the blend differently than a more classically structured vintage such as 2004. Admittedly, this distinction might be noticeable only to people who drink too much champagne, if that is possible. (I, for one, don’t drink enough.) The major champagne houses pay their winemakers to make a product so consistent that most people can’t tell the difference.
Another, more important reason to care about the disgorgement date, is that you don’t know how long this bottle has been gathering dust in a store window or an overheated warehouse waiting for someone to get a raise, get engaged, have a birthday, or most likely, waiting for New Year’s to roll around again. A recently disgorged wine will be fresher, more lively than one that’s been going stale on a shelf for several years.
Terry Theise is one importer who insists that his champagne producers put a disgorgement date on their labels. “I want retailers and consumers to know that they are tasting the same wine I tasted – or the wine writers tasted – when raving about a particular wine,” Theise says. A disgorgement date is an important piece of information in judging a wine before opening it – because once you’ve popped the cork, it’s too late.
“When you buy a bottle of non-vintage champagne, it could have been disgorged three months ago, or it could have been sitting in the sun in a shop for three years,” says Charles Philipponnat, president of Champagne Philipponnat, which puts disgorgement dates on all its labels. “It is important information for sommeliers and for consumers – it tells you what to expect when you open the bottle.”
A disgorgement date is not as crucial with a vintage sparkling wine – usually, they are aged for three or four years on the yeast before disgorgement. So a California sparkling vintage dated 2003 or 2004 will still be quite fresh. But that non-vintage brut could be from … well, who knows when?
Dear Friends -
The holidays, when we gather with friends and family to celebrate good times in the year just past and fresh hopes for the year to come, are made for sparkling wine. If you live in the DC region, I hope you saw my Washingtonian column on US sparkling wines in the December issue. (If not, I'll be sending an expanded version of that as the next WineLine.) Please visit dmwineline.com for my latest WineLine #62, in which I report on my harvest visit to Champagne and reveal a surprisingly earthy way the growers know when to pick the grapes. And it has nothing to do with brix.
Cheers, and all the best for the holidays and a wonderful 2008!
If you’re looking for a gift to give your wine-loving friends this holiday season, consider the Vinturi Wine Aerator. This nifty little gizmo tries to do away with cellar aging, decanting, “breathing” – all the curses of wine lovers who have trouble planning ahead.
Here’s how it works: Just hold the Vinturi over your glass and pour wine through it. The wine fizzes and gurgles with a sound not unlike when you draw air through your teeth while swishing wine around your mouth. The name of the device is a pun on the venturi effect, which explains the flow of liquid through a constricted opening.
The idea behind aerating wine is to allow oxygen to soften the wine’s harshness or tannin and allow the fruit to emerge. The most common way of accomplishing this is to decant a wine and allow it to “breathe” for a half-hour or more. The Vinturi accomplishes this in seconds.
Or does it? Well, I think so. I poured some wine into a glass, then poured a second glass through the Vinturi. The second glass tasted less tannic, more fruity than the first. It reminded me of the last glass of a nice bottle, when the wine has begun to emerge and I wish I hadn’t drunk it so fast. Of course, I knew which glass was which. When I offered the same glasses to two other people who had not seen me pour them, they could not tell the difference.
After trying the Vinturi several times, I believe it works. There is a gimmicky quality to it that makes some people skeptical, however. And the noise could be mistaken for a certain bodily function, as my 7-year-old daughter noted. If that bothers you, just pour the entire bottle through the Vinturi into a decanter.
One thing to keep in mind, though: It won’t make a bad wine good.