Champagne and All That Sparkles

Finding the Best Champagne from Around the World

Champagne GlassesAll that sparkles is not Champagne, despite the enduring legacy in America to refer to any wine with bubbles as Champagne.

Champagne is an ancient province of France, and lends its name to a distinctive sparkling wine whose name and method of production are protected by law. Actual Champagne comes only from the Champagne region of France.

For centuries, Champagne has enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as a wine of conviviality and good cheer. Among critics and connoisseurs, it still weighs in as the world’s finest sparkling wine, and the most expensive. Perhaps for these reasons, most Americans continue to relegate Champagne and other fine sparkling wines to special occasions: Thanksgiving dinner, weddings, late-night holiday parties, New Year’s Eve celebrations, etc. Frankly, Champagne and other top-quality sparkling wines deserve better, not only because they add a note of celebration to any occasion, but because they also pair splendidly with a wide variety of foods.

Champagne Styles and Preparation Methods

Champagne provides the ideal accompaniment to all types of seafood and poultry, as well as many cheeses and vegetarian dishes. The traditional Champagne houses of Comte Audoin de Dampierre, Joseph Perrier, and Philipponnat offer exceptional quality and value in non-vintage Champagne to enliven any meal or add festivity to any occasion. Dampierre’s Grand Cuvée Brut, Joseph Perrier’s Cuvée Royale, and Philipponnat’s Royale Réserve Brut and Royale Réserve Rosé are especially worth seeking out. Thierry Lombard’s Magenta Cuvée Supérieure also provides exceptional quality and value in a lighter, easy-to-drink style of Champagne.

Although all that sparkles is not Champagne, many sparkling wines throughout the world are made using the same painstaking method and are well-worth seeking out. The words “traditional method,” or similar words in the producer’s language should appear on the label. California fashions many exceptional sparkling wines through the traditional method, many of which are made by French Champagne houses. For those seeking tasty California bubbly that won’t break the bank, the Signal Ridge Chardonnay Brut offers plenty to like.

Cava, often referred to as Spain’s rendition of Champagne, provides many more opportunities to enjoy fine sparkling wines made in the traditional manner. Mont Marçal from the Penèdes region of Spain, just south of Barcelona, only makes cava, and consistently fashions some of the very best vintage Brut Reserva and Rosé cavas.

Another exciting sparkling wine, and perhaps the bubbly most currently in vogue, is Italy’s prosecco. Prosecco is typically lighter in alcohol than either cava or Champagne, but it is rarely made using the painstaking traditional method whereby the wine ferments and ages in the bottle. Bortolotti from Valdobbiadene, the classic production zone for prosecco, offers an exceptional prosecco experience.

With so many excellent sparkling wines to choose from, why limit the pleasure of Champagne or fine sparkling wine to a few occasions or just one time of year? Pour a glass of good bubbly today and enjoy!


Syrah: California’s Other
Great American Red Wine

stolpman-estate-grown-ballard-canyon-syrah-2012Aussies call it Shiraz, Americans refer to it as Syrah, but for all intents and purposes, it’s the same great grape.  Syrah reigns as Australia’s premier grape variety, garnering the accolades and attention reserved in America for California Cabernet.

Yet, American Syrah is every bit as exciting as Australian Shiraz, and it’s often more complex and compelling.  Furthermore, premium California Syrahs remain veritable bargains in comparison to the Golden State’s top Cabernets.  So, why don’t we drink more Syrah?

The fact is, America is just starting to discover Syrah, and California’s acumen with the nation’s other great red varietal may, in the not so distant future, rival Cabernet Sauvignon in popularity and quality.

Napa Valley, Santa Barbara County, and California’s Central Coast contain a trove of great Syrah wines. From Napa Valley, one can always count on outstanding Syrah from Colgin, Konsgaard, and Phelps, to name just a few of Napa’s iconic producers of this varietal, but at a price.

Equally persuasive and even more complex are the Syrah wines from Santa Barbara County and California’s Central Coast region.  Alban, Beckmen, Carlisle, Jaffurs, Olai, Sin Qua Non, Stolpman, and Tensley fashion pure, polished Syrahs to make even the most diehard Cabernet drinker swoon.  Moreover, many of these Central Coast Syrahs provide tremendous pleasure even in their first few years of life, unlike the state’s top Cabernets, and these Syrahs can be cellared to perfection for up to a decade or more.

Best of all, one doesn’t have to be a billionaire to drink great California Syrah.  Producers such as Beckmen and Stolpman fashion Syrahs that qualify as the finest quality and value wines among all premium California varietals.  Enjoy!


Great California Wines From Off the Beaten Path

Pietra Santa Winery
Pietra Santa Vineyard

John Steinbeck would have no problem finding Hollister, California, or making his way through the nearby Cienega Valley to taste the fruit of the vines that grow upon the slopes of the Gabilan Mountains or in the valley of the Salinas River.  But, how many of the wine tourists that crowd the tasting rooms of Napa Valley would know where to begin to look for Hollister or the Cienega Valley?

Off the beaten path and under the radar of the masses who travel to more trodden wine destinations, Hollister and the Cienega Valley offer the thirsty traveler in search of fine wine a trove of affordable treasures.  Located on the San Andreas Fault in the northern half of California’s Central Coast AVA, Cienega Valley may well be the most unspoiled wine country in California.

Calera is perhaps the region’s most recognizable name and the most lauded winery in Steinbeck country. Year in and year out, Calera’s wines are consistent favorites among critics and consumers, especially its award-winning Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.  Who knew that Calera wasn’t in Napa or Sonoma?

Pietra Santa is another Cienega Valley jewel.  Pietra Santa’s Tuscan-born winemaker, Alessio Carli, possesses a magic touch with Sangiovese, as the estate’s recently released 2010 Pietra Santa Sangiovese will attest.  Equally compelling is Pietra Santa’s Sassolino, a delicious, age-worthy super Tuscan red consisting of a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Recent Pietra Santa Signature Selection Pinot Noirs merit special attention, too, as does the 2014 Pietra Santa Estate Chardonnay and Amore Pinot Grigio, easily one of California’s finest Pinot Grigios. In addition, remember that Léal and Derose are two other noteworthy Cienega Valley wineries.

If you are in search of a wide variety of high-quality California wines at affordable prices, wander the road less taken and beat a path to Cienega Valley.

Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon: America’s Beloved Wines

Napa Vineyard

For nearly a half century Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon have captured America’s palates and become its most beloved wines. It’s not that other wine varietals or blends have not enjoyed their ascendency and even ridden tides of popular demand (i.e. Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, etc.). Rather, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon have never fallen out of favor as the United States Department of Agriculture will attest. According to USDA records, California alone had 300 grape varietals and 496,313 acres of wine grapes under cultivation in 2014, of which 185,798 acres were either Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. These two ever popular varietals account for more than 37% of the total wine grape plantings in California, the source of the vast majority of wine consumed in the United States.

Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon immigrated to the United States more than a century ago from their native France. Chardonnay hails from France’s Burgundy and Champagne regions where it gained fame as the world’s most prestigious white grape varietal, while Cabernet Sauvignon is indigenous to southwest France and Bordeaux, in particular, where it figures predominantly in many of Bordeaux’s greatest red wines (Châteaux Haut-Brion, Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Mouton among others). From its native France, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon have traveled the world, gaining adherents everywhere, but nowhere more than in the United States where the names Chardonnay and Cabernet have become nearly synonymous terms for white and red wine.

Red-&-White-Wine-in-GlassesCalifornia remains the source of most of America’s greatest Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon wines, with Napa and Sonoma counties enjoying top billing. However, savvy consumers need to know that some of California’s most compelling and often most affordable Chardonnays and Cabernets emanate from small family owned wineries in the big two appellations as well as from wineries outside of Napa and Sonoma. Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, Arroyo Seco and the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County, as well as many areas of Santa Barbara County all fashion outstanding California Chardonnay, while Lake County in northern California and California’s Central Coast (Paso Robles in particular) are increasingly sources of exceptional Cabernet Sauvignons at prices some of us can still afford, so enjoy!


How is Rosé Wine Made?

light red wine in glassRosé wines seem to be all the rage once again.  Gone is the stigma of the pink drink and memories of sweet, low alcohol, innocuous White Zinfandels, which weren’t white and barely rosé, either.  Today’s rosé wines come in all shades of pink, from a barely perceptible blush from leading Provencal rosé producers, to deeply colored concoctions made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Rosés can be made from any number of grape varietals, and they can range in residual sugar from bone dry to quite sweet.  Today’s consumers tend to eschew sweet rosé wines in favor of dry versions, which have been popular among Europeans for generations.  In fact, the French drink more dry rosé wine today than white wine.

Methods for Making Rosé

Rosé wines can be made in several ways.  They can be made exclusively from one or more red grape varieties that spend just enough time on their skins after crushing to impart color and a bit of flavor (remembering that it is the skin of the grape that determines a wine’s color, not its juice).  The longer the red varietal’s skins remain in contact with the juice or must, the greater the wine’s color.  When red skins are removed soon after contact, rosé rather than red wine results.  This is the most common method of producing rosé.

Rosé can also be made by adding a small amount of red wine in the form of a completely fermented wine or as unfermented juice to white wine. This practice is rarely done today, except in Champagne, where small amounts of Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier are often added to white Champagne to create rosé Champagne.  The two then marry in the bottle as the wine undergoes secondary fermentation.

Almost any red grape variety can produce rosé.  Some of the most common grape varietals are Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault (Rhône and Southern French varietals known for producing the bone dry rosés of Provence and nearby Languedoc), Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel. Almost all wine-producing countries make some rosé wine from local or international varietals.  Garnacha (Grenache) and Tempranillo in Spain produce excellent dry rosés, as do Sangiovese and Nebbiolo in Italy.  Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Zinfandel based rosés predominate in California, many of which are deliciously dry.  So pick your pink pleasure, indulge yourself and enjoy!