Marketers tell us that the majority of sparkling wines are bought and consumed between November and January. That’s a shame, since I firmly believe that sparkling wine should be consumed year long, particularly on Monday nights when paying bills. But that’s another topic for another column.
Given that this is the time of year when the majority of you are heading out to the store to pick up your once-a-year-bottle-of-bubbly, I made it my mission to try out several readily available, under-$30 bottles of sparkling wine (ok, my husband Keith and some friends helped). Hey, it’s a rough job but someone has to do it!
Pay attention not only to the report on the wine, but to where and when we tasted them. You’ll notice not a single bottle opened to celebrate a wedding, graduation, or New Year.
(All wines were purchased at Farm Fresh in Williamsburg, but we lost the receipt so all prices are estimates based on online prices.)
Roederer Estate, Anderson Valley Brut, estate bottled. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. We started our tasting on a Wednesday night before I headed out for my monthly book club (don’t worry, I only had one glass). A barely-there pale straw color filled with bubbles garnered this California sparkler a nine on the Gordon family bubblemeter. This is a wine for anything. Dry, nutty, with a hint of toasted bread, it would work fabulously with just about any food you can think of, even spicy Chinese food. About $24.
Casalnova Prosecco. 100 percent Prosecco. We adore Prosecco, the Italian version of Champagne. When Keith picked this one up at the store the wine manager told him it was a “get lucky wine.” Well, I don’t know about that, but we certainly enjoyed it. We didn’t find it as enticing as the Roederer when we tasted it as a before-dinner aperitif with our friend Linda. My notes call it “light and simple.” However, when we tasted it again the following night it seemed more flavorful, with a slight lemony taste. Only a three on the bubblemeter, however. About $18.
Brut Cuvée Sparkling Wine Taittinger Domaine Carneros. This wine hails from the California winery of famed French champagne maker Taittinger. Full disclosure: We drank it while on a sunset cruise with close friends so, undoubtedly, the setting contributed to our love of the wine. Still, Domaine Carneros is considered one of the top sparkling wine producers in the country, so you can’t go wrong. The one we sipped (from plastic cups, no less) was a classic Pinot Noir/Chardonnay blend with a lovely nuttiness on the palate. Keith gave it an eight or nine on the bubblemeter. About $26.
Graham Beck Brut Rosé nonvintage. We popped the cork on this beautiful pale pink South African wine the Wednesday before Thanksgiving with friends at our “rivah” house in Mathews. A classic mix of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the color comes from leaving the skins of the Pinot Noir in contact with the juice. To me, this was the fruitiest of the wines, with raspberry and strawberry notes reminiscent of a May afternoon. About $15.
Hardy’s Sparkling Shiraz. If you like your sparkling wine red, this Australian sparkler is the one for you. Rich and fruity, bordering on the edge of sweet but never quite falling into it, this wine provided the perfect opening for a Thanksgiving celebration with friends. You’ll get blackcurrents, cherries and, yes, a hint of chocolate. About $18.
My husband, Keith, and I have been drinking these wines mixed in with our own wines since then. We still have many more wines from Heather’s cases to go, but I thought it was time I shared what I’ve tasted so far (plus, my column was due and I had no other ideas).
I can tell you that this is a really fun thing to do. Every time I open one of “Heather’s wines” it’s like unwrapping a present. Most of the time the “gift” is terrific. Occasionally, it falls as flat as a pair of footy pajamas from Aunt Gladys. All in all, though, I highly recommend it. Here’s what I have so far.
Klaus Knobloch 2007 Bacchus Kabinett. If you like your white wines on the sweet side, you’ll love this German wine. Plus, at only 10.5% alcohol, you can even uncork it during lunch. The problem for us was that we don’t like our white wine sweet unless we’re drinking it as a dessert wine. Otherwise, this wine would be just fine. The Bacchus grape itself is described on one web site as “Muscat-like,” which would explain the sweetness, and it has some Riesling in its ancestry. Oh, the word “Kabinett?” Means “made from fully ripened grapes,” notes the German Wine Institute. $14.99
Sexto 2006 Terra Alta. I knew I’d like this Spanish red just from the label. How could I not like a wine with the word “sex” in its name (yes, I am one of those women who occasionally judges a wine by its label). Well, I need to get my head out of the gutter. Turns out that “Sexto” means “sixth” in Spanish and this wine takes it name from the six grapes it contains: Carnacha, Carignan, Tempranillo, Lledoner Pelut Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. Garnacha, which makes up one-third of the wine, is the Spanish version of “Grenache,” a powerful red grape that forms the backbone of Chateauneuf de Pape and has been turning up in a lot of Australian reds. It also happens to be the most commonly grown red grape in Spain.
The winemaker attributes the flavor of the wine to the sixth grape he added: Lledoner Pelut Noir. When I googled the grape what turns up but a blog review of this very wine! Apparently, Lledoner Pelut, likely related to Grenache, is used in one of Spain’s most esteemed wines: Priorat. I just know I liked whatever it did to Sexto, which is a rich, spicy fruit bomb that provides far more flavor than its $14.99 price would suggest.
Arco Nova Vinho Verde. Another low-alcohol white (10%), this Portuguese wine’s crisp, dry flavor has great appeal. As with most of the whites listed here, this one was sipped while sitting on our front porch rocking chairs, reveling in the end of the work day. This is a bottle I would open again and again this summer. And at $9.99, there’s no reason not to! The grape? The Vinho Verde is to Portugal what Chardonnay is to the US—classic!
Taborga Red. This Chilean red is a 93% Pais and 7% Cabernet. What? You haven’t heard of Pais? Yeah, well, me neither. Pais is typically a blending grape, but I really liked this wine. It was a lighter red and would probably be lovely slightly chilled during the summer. My tasting notes call it “smooth, like spring, with lots of berries.” The winery suggests you should get “hints of hazelnut and strawberry.” Strawberry, yes; but I have no clue what hazelnuts taste like.
Taborga wines come from Viña Lomas de Cauquenes, a huge, organic, fair-trade winery offering low-end table wines. But, as I’ve said before, there’s nothing wrong with a well-done table wine and this one fits the bill. So does the price: Just $9.99. Oh, and check out the label; all labels are painted by a Chilean artist named, coincidently, Taborga.
La Cappucina Fontégo Soave. You’ve heard me say before that I’m not much into Italian wines; more on that in another column. But the more Italian white wines I drink, the more into Italian wines I get. This one is no exception. Nutty and rich, yet dry as dust. . . this wine would be great on any summer evening alone or with pasta, clams or grilled rosemary chicken. I personally wanted to run out and get some fresh oysters but Keith restrained me. And, I have to admit, I do know about Soave and have always loved it. La Cappucina is a small, family-owned vineyard and the care they put into their wines certainly shows, even at this price point. $13.99
Il Cavaliere Ruchê Di Castagnole Monferrato. This wine is why I shy away from Italian reds (unless someone has a 50-year-old Barolo they want to share). While the label made this wine sound like one that would be perfect for us (“beautifully spiced wine. . . pairs wonderfully with foods rich in taste and aroma”) this was, by far, the worst of the bunch. It was so bad, so sour and puckery, that we didn’t even put it on our cooking wine shelf; just poured it down the sink. That said, I’d still be willing to try another wine made with the Ruchê grape; just not from this vineyard. 11.99.
Tegernseerhof Rosé Zweigeit 2007. What can you say about a cold, dry Rosé sipped on the front porch after a good day’s work? You can say. . . this is what life is about. Yet too many people shy away from Rosé, wrongly thinking they will be sweet. But this Austrian Rosé is everything a good Rosé should be: refreshing, low in alcohol (12%), dry. Keith said it was so crisp that if he tasted it blind, he would have thought it was a Sauvignon Blanc. I picked up notes of roses. It is made from the Zweigeit grape, a mix between two other grapes I’ve never heard of (Blaufrankisch and St. Laurent). It is, however, the most widely grown red grape in Austria. $11.99.
Did I pique your interest? Ready to venture beyond Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc? All it takes is a visit to your favorite wine store!
Whether the wine room is Keith’s happy place because more than 700 bottles of wine are stored there or because the room is kept at a fairly constant 55 degrees (my Scottish husband is always too warm here in Virginia) is up for debate. What is certain is that without really trying, we have amassed a collection of wine we never set out to gather.
Which brings me to the topic of this month’s column: When (and how) does one age wine?
These days, the vast majority of wines are designed to be drunk now (ok, maybe three weeks from now). The old days of buying a bottle and laying it down for 25 years have, by and large, gone by the wayside.
Having said that, we have now tasted enough “older” wines to recognize the unique richness of a bottle that has sat undisturbed for five, 10, even 20 years.
Keith began buying wines (mostly reds) specifically to age about 12 years ago, when we joined our first wine group and met several people two decades or more our senior who had a cellar to show for it. We quickly realized that the only way we could afford to drink older wines was to buy them young (read: cheap) and put them down to age.
Quicker than you can say “summer is over” he and our son had built an insulated room in our basement (this was Pennsylvania, after all) and hauled in the wine racks. Before I realized it, most of our disposable income was going to buying wine to “save.” I kid you not; even with more than 700 bottles in the room above our heads Keith often tells me he has to run to Costco or Total Wines “because we have nothing to drink.”
Then said husband will crack open a 10- or 15-year-old bottle of wine. As I sniff, swirl and, reluctantly, finally swallow, I get it. As Keith said when I told him the topic of this month’s column, “I think of wine as composed of several components. As long as all are top quality and in balance, you will have a good wine. But give them a little time to learn to work together and you will have heaven.”
So what does this mean for you, the everyday wine drinker? Only this: The next time you get some unexpected windfall (think tax refund or finally selling Aunt Sylvia’s china on e-Bay) instead of blowing the money on whatever, head to your local wine store and ask about a good wine you can afford that would benefit from a few years of aging. If you can, buy a case or, at the very least, six bottles. Then take them home and store them in a cool, dark place where they will rest undisturbed. If you don’t have a cellar, wine cooler or “happy place,” try the closet under the stairs or, in a worst-case scenario, under your bed. The key is a steady temperature, whether that temp is 55 degrees or 72 degrees (although the warmer the temperature the quicker the wine will mature), and little-to-no movement.
Two years later, try a bottle. Take notes and drink the bottle throughout the evening so it can open up. Two years later, try another. Again, take notes. Compare the notes to the wine you drank two years’ previous. What are the differences? The similarities?
Just be careful. Next thing you know, you might have 700 or so bottles of wine sitting in some closet somewhere and be heading to Farm Fresh for a case of “everyday” wine.
I write this column from our TV room, huddled on the couch while wearing long pants, a sweater and a sweatshirt, with a warm dog snuggled against each side. A football game is on the screen and a lasagna in the oven. We have officially hit cold-weather season. Which means it’s time for cold-weather wines.
This is not the time to mess with little wimpy wines. We’re talking wines that can stand up to the stews and casseroles of winter. Wines that aren’t afraid of a roasted chicken stuffed with 40 cloves of garlic, wines that can take on braised short ribs and still come up fighting. Wines that warm you from the inside out.
We’re talking deep, dark Zinfandels, fruit bomb Cabernets, musty Malbecs and thick Petite Syrahs. If you’re lucky enough to have either deep pockets or a deep cellar, you might pull out one of the big three of Italy: a Barola, Barbaresco, or Amarone (cheap and young don’t work when it comes to these wines).
For the rest of us, there’s always one of our favorites, a blend called GMS: Grenache, Shiraz and Mouvèdre. These are the grapes of Chateauneuf de Pape, the French wine-growing region that should be synonymous with deep, dark, powerful, made-for-winter wines. While French in history, today’s GSMs are most likely to hail from down under, with Australia having made a name for itself with this blend. One that we love? Rosemount Estate.
We also find that in the winter we tend to gravitate towards higher-alcohol wines. Take Zins; some that we love can be as high as 14 or 15 percent alcohol. While these can be difficult to match with food, try a glass before dinner to warm things up and one after in lieu of dessert.
Then there are Cabs. Like the one my husband, Keith, just brought me: a 2003 Arrowood Cabernet Sauvignon. A sip and I purse my mouth; it’s as tight as a size 8 pair of jeans on my size 12 body. Nonetheless, I force myself to continue drinking and slowly find that frozen core that sticks with me from November through April thawing. A bit later and Keith pours another glass and . . . oh my. Is this the same wine? The denim has stretched and it now fits my palate with the comfort of a pair of size 14 jeans. Amazing what a bit of oxygen does to a bottle of wine.
I want to obsess over the beauty of this wine, but Keith cautions me to chill. Instead, he says (in between non-conversant moments as he watches the aforementioned football game) it’s time to say a word about Shiraz (Syrah for those of you who turn your nose up at any grape grown outside of Europe). “It’s a big mouthful of flavor without the tannins that come with a Cabernet or Bordeaux blend,” Keith explains. Drink upon purchase; few need to be aged these days.
While you can still get some great Shiraz values from Australia, we’ve been veering away from the Aussie Shiraz’ lately in favor of Washington state wines. If you read my column on Walla Walla a few months ago (email me if you need a copy) then you know that this state is making some unbelievably intense wines that put many high-quality Australian and California wines to shame (and are about one-third the price, to boot).
Fast forward to later in the evening. Dinner is done. The teenagers are asleep. The puppy is finally played out. Keith brings me a nightcap: A tiny sip of Port. Sweet, thick and warming. Yup, we’re definitely into winter.
Sigh. Maybe I'm just premenstrual.
The wine and gustatory experience continues here in hot, dry Walla Walla. I’m not complaining about the weather, because what I’ve learned over the past couple of days is that it is just that hot, dry weather—coupled with nights often 40 degrees cooler than daytime highs—that are responsible for the incredible wines we’ve been tasting.
Yesterday was a 10 a.m. tasting at the Long Shadows winery, one only open by appointment. We were greeted with one of the best sentences a wine lover can ever hear: “Grab a glass and get some wine,” and went on to taste 7 exquisite wines (one white, 7 reds) each created by a different renowned winemaker (Randy Dunn, Agustin Huneeus Sr., Philippe Melka, Michel Rolland, Armin Diel, John Duval, Ambrogio & Giovanni Folonari, Gilles Nicault). For the model used by Long Shadows winery is unique; the seven wine makers invested in the winery each work with the winery’s winemaker to source the grapes and create their own wines with their own mark. The result are wines that could stand up to any cult California wine – at 10 percent of the price (the highest priced wine was $55).
The tasting room itself was worth the trip, crowned with an exquisite glass chandelier by Seattle artist Dave Chihuly, with a half dozen of his glass “flowers” providing a sense of whimsy to this otherwise stark, contemporary loft-like space.
That was followed by a quick stop at the Cougar Crest Winery, which, like most of the wineries here, can count its age on less than two hands. The cavernous tasting room had opened just a year before, prior to which they poured their wines at a location at the airport (where, believe it or not, dozens of wineries make their home). The 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon was a perfect example of the fabulous wines we’re finding here: complex, rich, fruity but with enough acidity to prevent the flabbiness that is too common with big California Cabs. (We have a mixed case winging its way to us in September!)
Dinner was at Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen, a bistro that specializes in Spanish and Moroccan dishes all complemented, of course, by the local wines. Keith chose a lamb dish and I chose the Fedelias, baked bits of pasta with Spanish ham, clams, snails, and other yummy things; kind of like a paella without the rice. It was highly spiced and one of the most delicious things I’ve eating a in a long time. The best part was that after we ordered we asked our waitress to recommend a local wine under $50, and we wound up with a fabulous Rotie Cellars 2007 Southern Blend, a Grenache/Syrah/Mouvedre produced and bottled by Papineau LLC, all, of course, of Walla Walla.